Welcome all to the preview for the 2021-2022 Pitt Men's basketball team. I'm planning on keeping this series going weekly/biweekly throughout the season. The Panthers are entering into the 2021 season emaciated by transfers and a concerning lack of recruiting.
Looking back on the 2020 season that was, in many ways disappointing and has Pitt fans questioning the future of Jeff Capel, of Heather Lyke, and of the future of the program. The Panthers finished the shortened and tumultuous season with a paltry 10-12 overall record, going 6-10 in ACC play. Behind the outcomes of the games played, the real narrative of last season was concerned with transfers and a loss of identity.
Transfers, a lot of them
Whether you want to chalk up the transfers of Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson, and Au'Diese Toney to greed, locker room problems, or simply pursuit of better basketball opportunities, the fact of the matter is, Pitt lost a huge amount of on-court production. Johnson, who transferred to Indiana to play under Mike Woodson his first year as IU's head coach, scored over 1,000 points in his three-year Pitt career. The Panthers further watched as promising two-way wing Au'Diese Toney left to join the Arkansas Razorbacks and Eric Mussleman. While neither player was perfect, Johnson and Toney's departures were more than unfortunate for Jeff Capel and the Pitt staff. The two, along with McGowens (who transferred before the 2020 season to Nebraska), represented a potential resurgence of the program under Capel. The trio stood as the cornerstones of Capel's first recruiting class in 2018, and looked to provide stability while the staff tried to get their roots down in the recruiting world.
It was reported fighting in the locker room during the 2020 season between Johnson, Toney, and Pitt's newly minted NBA player Justin Champagnie that led to the transfers of both Johnson and Toney, and Champagnie's decision to enter the NBA draft. What is left is scorched earth. As Pitt and Capel desperately try to piecemeal together a 2022 recruiting class, the roster outlook for this season is barren. Returning guards William Jeffress (a four-star recruit from Erie), Sophomore Femi Odukale, and Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton look to shoulder the load that X, Toney and Champagnie left in Oakland. But even with the promise shown by the three in the previous season, the forecast seems to include another losing season along with a rocky ACC conference finish toward the bottom of the standings.
Capel, all Coach K?
After attending Pitt for the past four years, I have learned that there is a tendency for fans to dwell on the success of previous years and teams. Conditioned to expect success after the years of Dixon and Howland, who both posted career winning percentages over .690 at the program, the Pitt faithful is (understandably) warming up the seat beneath Jeff Capel. When Capel was hired, few expected a quick turnaround, as previous coach Kevin Stallings left the program in the most embarrassing and desolate places, the basement of the ACC with little to no prospect of improvement. However, the past year of Capel's tenure as the Pitt head coach feels like one step forward and two (maybe even three) steps backward. Many Panther fans had dreams of hiring UConn's Danny Hurley, or former Pitt star Sean Miller, following the wave of shake ups that occurred in the 2018 offseason. But Heather Lyke and the administration patterned for Coach K understudy Jeff Capel. Billed as a savant recruiter and a college basketball veteran, the hire wasn't entirely a failure. Hurley and Miller were surely pipe-dreams for Pitt fans, and in the current state of Pitt in the ACC, we may never see such a slam-dunk hire. The reality is, Pitt isn't a coveted job. The program has sputtered and stalled since joining the ACC in 2011, and the issues surrounding Pitt Athletics aren't solely on the basketball team's shoulders.
The Reality on Cardiac Hill
Look around the sport of college basketball. For a program to succeed, they have seemingly two avenues to build that success. They can recruit the best players (think Florida State's Leonard Hamilton) or they can build a system on the court that produces success that future players want to be a part of (think Villanova's Jay Wright or UVA's Tony Bennett). In the ACC, the former is reigning king at the moment. Florida State, Duke, Louisville, and Miami all welcome in top 25 2021 recruiting classes, while Pitt sits at the 105th ranked class nationally, last in the ACC. While Capel was lauded as a recruiter at Duke, Panther fans are right to question his ability to recruit without the famed Duke brand. Having brought in numerous four-star recruits to the program, Capel's problem has been developing his players. With the powder keg that exploded last season, there were other failures of Capel's that were hidden amongst the exodus. Many might remember Gerald Drumgoole, a four-star recruit from La Lumiere, one of the top highschool programs in the country. Drumgoole played underwhelmingly for Pitt, and transferred amidst the chaos of last season to Albany. The reality for Pitt, is that the long trek up the recruiting boards starts with either more money being allocated to the program to pay players to attend, or to build a successful system. With middling success on both the recruiting trail and in the standings, Capel's Pitt teams haven't shown a commitment to either formula to revive Pitt. And under current AD Heather Lyke, it seems less likely that Pitt builds up a recruiting profile through funneling money to recruits. This leaves a bleak outlook for the future.
Objective: Get out of the basement
Pitt's outlook for the future isn't clear at the inception of this season. The identity of Capel's program left out the door behind McGowens, Johnson, Toney, and Champagnie. Stuck in the proverbial mud recruiting-wise, Pitt needs to build an identity. The problem in the past three years of Capel's tenure has been the ACC. Treading water in the conference is remarkably hard. Despite the national media's calls of the ACC not being the top conference in college basketball, upward mobility is difficult to come by. Schedules include some of the sport's toughest teams, from Duke to UNC, all the way down to feisty middle-of-the-pack programs like NC State and Miami. For many coaches in Capel's situation, the major problem is the inability to bring in top recruits while the program remains in disarray, getting slapped around by the big bullies on the playground week in and week out. And further, when recruits do choose Pitt, the program must do everything in their power to maintain them at the school. In the era of college basketball we are in today, recruiting doesn't stop after enrollment. The Transfer Portal is filling up every offseason, with rules allowing for a higher chance of eligibility the very next season for players. And the results of the 2020 season are all too stark of a reminder that all the progress accrued in the past year can be wiped off the face of the planet by transfers. A successful season for Pitt may not include a winning record. The goal should be simple: Get out of the basement of the ACC. The bottom tier of teams in the conference: Boston College, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and Clemson all show the same signs of Pitt's failures. Poor recruiting, poor coaching and a lack of hype around the programs. For Pitt to show promise and build their profile in the ACC, the Panthers must elevate to the tier in the middle. Finishing amongst the NC States, Miamis, and Louisvilles of the conference should be the inevitable goal for Pitt. The basketball acumen was proved by Howland and Dixon. Pitt basketball can succeed and garner fan support, despite the many crusty old calls of Pittsburgh being a "Football City". The next step up for the program is to get out of the same sentence as Boston College and the rest of the doormats of the conference. That is how we will eventually get recruits. That is how the program builds an identity in the ACC.
I'm just not sure
Looking now onto the season before us, I'm not sure if Pitt can rebuild to their previous level of success. I'm not sure Jeff Capel is the answer to the problem in Oakland. I'm not even sure that they will win an ACC contest this year. The one thing I am sure of is this: Pitt needs to build an identity. They need to either commit to recruiting well or building a good system on the court. Under Capel, the recruiting avenue seems viable, but he needs a big-time recruit to solidify both his job and the direction the program is going in. As Pitt fans, our eyes should be on the recruiting boards more than the on-court product this year. So far in the 2022 class, Capel has a strong start with four-star guard Judah Mintz, a top 60 player nationally, announcing his commitment to Pitt along with two more hopeful commitments from local 2022 targets in Fray Nguimbi and Mason Manning. Success on the recruiting trail will do well to quell the calls for a new coach, and provide optimism going forward. I'm hopeful for the future and look forward to interacting with as many Pitt fans as possible going forward, however brutal this season may be. Much love to you all and Hail to Pitt.