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Despite bumps in the road, Pitt basketball headed in right direction

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt’s basketball season is only ten games old. But despite some early ups and downs, it’s pretty clear that the program is headed in the right direction.

Now, what I think is unknown is just how far the program can go. I’m not yet convinced they’ll contend for national championships or even ACC championships just yet. However, I think we can safely say the program is improving and that’s really the only barometer for this season, folks.

If you think about it, that might be kind of a hollow endorsement. The Panthers were a dismal 8-24 last season under Kevin Stallings’ leadership and had one of the worst seasons around these parts we’ve ever seen. Safe to say, anything would be better than that. And, for the record, I’m fully convinced Stallings himself would have had a better year this season if given the chance.

But I’m also convinced that this year’s team is not only better but that the program is in better shape. Capel, like Stallings, is guiding a team that is virtually brand new from the previous season. But unlike Stallings, he’s had far less trouble doing it.

In the non-conference season, Stallings’ team last year was unimpressive, to say the least. They lost an opener to Navy before dropping a home game to Montana. After a win against UC Santa Barbara, they were routed by 31 to Penn State, before losing other contests to Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

Now, Pitt did win some non-conference games. Eight, exactly. That’s easy to remember because the Panthers were winless in the ACC. But even those wins weren’t real comfortable. Pitt had a single win that was a blowout — a 72-51 victory against McNeese State. But most of their wins were relatively close, including an overtime victory against Mt. St. Mary’s, a four-point win against Towson, and a six-point win against Delaware State.

Another thing to remember? All of Pitt’s victories were at home (or in the case of the Duquesne game, on a neutral court).

Now, let’s compare that with what Capel has done.

Pitt is 7-3 and while they don’t have any landmark wins, their victory against 7-2 Saint Louis should look pretty good later in the year. Even beyond that, though, the Panthers have been handling the weaker teams with relative ease — something we didn’t see under Stallings. They defeated Youngstown State by 16 in their opener. They beat VMI by 39. They defeated Central Arkansas by 26. Duquesne by 21. That sure beats squeaking by Delaware State by six, no?

None of the Panthers’ victories have come on the road yet, but Pitt has already proven they can be competitive there. They lost a game to a ranked Iowa team on the road by a single point. And even in the loss to West Virginia, in another very tough road environment, Pitt was competitive. Winning a road game will require defeating an ACC team there, so I’m not sure they will do that. However, given what they showed at Iowa, it’s not out of the question to ask them to knock off a weaker ACC team away from home.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the team’s surprising loss to Niagara. Now, let’s be clear here. There’s no sugarcoating that one. It was an embarrassing game and one that Pitt should have won. But the Panthers lost that game by only a point and nearly pulled off a shocker after trailing by double digits with a little more than five minutes left in the game. As I said then, this is a very young and inexperienced team and they aren’t going to waltz through the season and win every game they should. Even ranked teams this season have lost some head-scratchers, after all. While the Niagara game was disappointing, that they’ve only suffered one upset so far is also encouraging. Lots of teams have bad losses and to expect Pitt to avoid that is asking too much.

Beyond this season, the long-term prognosis for the program will depend on how well these guys develop and how well Pitt can recruit. And while they clearly have some frontcourt issues, I’m convinced Capel will ultimately be fine from a recruiting standpoint as well. Ten games into his career, Xavier Johnson is already a budding star. Audiese Toney is a double double threat every time out and Trey McGowens has proven himself to be capable, too. Capel has work to do on the recruiting trail but he’s built an excellent foundation already with an extremely athletic backcourt. My guess is that he’ll get it done over time and that Pitt has even been in the mix for some of guys they have is encouraging.

Pitt has much to do to get back to the Ben Howland/Jamie Dixon days, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen and, despite some recent setbacks to Niagara and West Virginia, it’s tough to not be happy with the direction the program is moving.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill’s Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.