Kevin Gorman: Jeff Capel’s Pitt debut wasn’t pretty but a home win is a thing of beauty

December 3, 2018

On a night of firsts for Jeff Capel and Pitt basketball, his coaching debut started with three freshmen in the lineup for the first time in school history and ended with his first victory as its coach.

That’s no small feat, considering the Panthers snapped a 19-game losing streak that included 10 consecutive home defeats. Pitt’s once-proud program had become a punch line in college basketball circles, so it hired the former Duke player and assistant coach for a comeback.

Capel is trying to change that culture, and Pitt’s 69-53 victory over Youngstown State on Tuesday night before 4,729 at Petersen Events Center was a good start. His efforts to reach out to the Oakland Zoo -- calling it a Zoo Era -- were rewarded. The student section was near full capacity, and there was an air of excitement that has been missing at the Pete.

It was a better start than last year, when the Panthers lost their opener to Navy. It was better than the 2016 opener, when they needed double overtime to beat Eastern Michigan in Kevin Stallings’ debut.

But you wouldn’t call it pretty.

“It was like going to the dentist, for both teams,” Youngstown State coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “I’m sure it was painful to watch.”

It didn’t help that top returning scorer Jared Wilson-Frame was suspended for failing to meet university standards, even if the Panthers knew since last spring he wouldn’t be available for the opener.

It didn’t help that freshman guards Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney made only 7 of 22 first-half field goals, even if all three scored in double figures and combined for 45 points.

And it didn’t help that 6-foot-10 sophomore center Terrell Brown was benched for the second half after grabbing only one rebound in eight minutes in the first half, even if Kene Chukwuka grabbed eight in 26.

“For me, it’s not about sending a message. This is just how it is, and this is how it’s going to be,” Capel said, borrowing a favorite phrase of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. “This is the standard. The standard is the standard, and the standard is not changing. As a player, you need to raise your standard. That’s been my thing since I have gotten here. Everything in our program needs to be elevated.”

The Panthers elevated, even if the opening minutes felt like a root canal. The Panthers didn’t just miss their first six shots but did so spectacularly. Johnson missed a dunk. McGowens had a dunk attempt stuffed by 6-9 Olamide Pedersen. Johnson then attempted a reverse layup but also was blocked by Pedersen.

But Pitt played with the ferocity demanded by Capel, who wants his team to play together, with toughness and compete on every possession. They did just that, defending passing lanes and attacking the basket while making a million mistakes in the process.

“I really feel like we can play relaxed, don’t worry about looking over our shoulder,” said McGowens, a 6-3 guard who scored game-high 17 points. “It says a lot that he trusts us, especially as young as we are.”

These weren’t Kevin Stallings’ Panthers. They finished 2 of 11 from 3-point range, instead scoring 48 points in the paint, 27 on the fast break.

They weren’t Jamie Dixon’s Panthers, either. They shot 12 of 31 from the field (38.7 percent) in the first half, had more turnovers (nine) than assists (two) and were beat on the boards 27-26.

Dixon would have pulled his hair out.

Moreover, Dixon would have buried Johnson on the bench for following a missed dunk on a breakaway by racing past Chukwuka at the 3-point line and turning the ball over while trying to throw a behind-the-back pass.

Capel didn’t flinch.

“If you’re going to allow guys to have freedom, then you have to allow them to make mistakes -- as long as their mistakes are them going hard,” said Capel, who drew a first-half technical foul for arguing with officials. “Those guys were playing hard, and you allow them to grow. You allow them to fix it. You allow them to learn from it.”

Capel doesn’t have much choice, as the Panthers have glaring holes at shooting guard and power forward. Ryan Luther, who transferred to Arizona, would have served as a strong frontcourt presence. Parker Stewart, who transferred to Tennessee-Martin, would have provided a perimeter threat. Those who stayed will play, mistakes and all.

What Capel isn’t putting up with from the Panthers is a lack of energy.

“We need to be hungry,” he said, “every time we step on the court.”

Malik Ellison, a St. John’s transfer and the son of Louisville great Purvis, brought the Pete to life by throwing down a dunk in the first half. He also drew the technical foul by hanging on the rim after a dunk.

McGowens showed he can finish. He drew a foul and scored on a driving layup. He drove the lane, switched from his right hand to left amid a Euro step and spun the ball off the glass for a layup. And he split two defenders on the right wing and threw down a tomahawk jam.

After going 0-18 in the ACC last season, Pitt has nowhere to go but up. And these Panthers go up, attacking the rim with reckless abandon and playing a relentless defense that forced 20 turnovers.

That should at least make them entertaining.

It was obvious that there’s a new man in charge of Pitt basketball. Capel made it clear the Panthers will speak in plural pronouns -- us, we, our -- and backed it up not just with his words but with his actions.

“It’s exciting,” Capel said of the opening victory. “More importantly for me, I’m excited for our guys. We have a locker room full of guys that haven’t won a game in college in 2018, so this was their first.

“I’m never concerned about me. I had my time when I played. I got a lot of attention when I played. I don’t need that now. I don’t want that now. I want these guys to get it. These guys deserve it.”

Capel deserves it, too, after leading the Panthers to something so long-awaited it can only be considered a thing of beauty: a reason to turn on the Victory Lights for Pitt basketball.

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