In the aftermath of a fairly riotous stretch for Pitt basketball, Heather Lyke made her feelings fairly clear on Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ve got great confidence in Jeff Capel.”
Those were the words of Pitt’s Director of Athletics during a Zoom press conference with local reporters, and they came two days after star forward Justin Champagnie declared for the NBA and three days after five-star center prospect Efton Reid committed to LSU over the Panthers.
Add in five offseason transfers leaving the program and a disastrous close to the 2020-21 season that left Pitt with a sub-.500 record for the third year in as many tries since Capel became head coach, and it’s no surprise that Lyke faced questions about the state of the program.
“There’s no question he took over a tough situation: we were 0-18 in the ACC my first year here,” Lyke said, referencing the final season of the two-year Kevin Stallings experiment that led to Capel’s hire three years ago. “But that’s not to say it can’t be done. We also had a women’s soccer program that had never won an ACC game when Coach (Randy) Waldrum got here, and we had 11 wins this year.
“It takes time. You have to build it the right way. Basketball’s a challenging environment. There’s no question that we’re going to do things right under Coach Capel’s leadership, so recruiting’s going to be tough sometimes. He’s going to build it the right way. Sometimes those things take time.
“I think we’ve seen real positive strides. There’s been a little bit of team chemistry, team issues that we’ve had to manage through, and you’ve got to grow from those, you’ve got to learn from those situations, and there’s no question I think Jeff knows what that needs to look like and feel like with his team.”
Capel certainly inherited a mess from Stallings, and while the last three seasons have shown some indications of improvement – Pitt’s conference winning percentage has gotten better each year – there is also plenty of uncertainty as the Panthers enter Year Four with Capel as the head coach.
Champagnie’s departure was a major blow, for starters; granted, Capel and his staff deserve a lot of credit for helping develop him into the player he is, but he’s leaving after scoring 360 of the team’s 1,566 points and grabbing 221 of Pitt’s 843 rebounds last season.
Then there were the in-season departures of juniors Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, who combined to score 485 points and pull down 157 rebounds. Also gone are Abdoul Karim Coulibaly (114 points, 86 rebounds) and Terrell Brown (53 points and 56 rebounds).
In five players, then, Pitt has lost 64.6% of its scoring and 61.7% of its rebounding from a season ago. And that’s from a team that went 10-12 overall and 6-10 in the ACC while winning just two of its final 12 games, including an opening-round loss in the ACC Tournament.
Now Capel is looking to fill the four starting spots that have been left vacant by Johnson, Toney, Champagnie and Coulibaly.
“We’re going to have a new group of kids – I think we have eight kids coming back next year, and that group is a great group that is committed to Pitt and committed to the team concept,” Lyke said. “So I think that that’s a real positive for this program moving forward.
“We obviously won some games early on that we were excited about. I think the trajectory was good. We had a little team chemistry issues, I think, that hurt. But there’s no doubt I’m confident that he can prepare this team, he can prepare our kids, he can develop our student-athletes, and his whole staff can do that. He’s got a great staff alongside him.”
Lyke hired Capel in the spring of 2018 after he spent seven seasons as a top assistant at Duke. Those years were a big part of his resume, as were successful head-coaching stints at VCU and Oklahoma. But the biggest strength Lyke has found in her men’s basketball coach is one she didn’t necessarily see at the time she hired him – and now she thinks it might be the most important strength to have.
“I think the thing that I didn’t realize that he was really good at is building relationships with student-athletes,” Lyke said. “He’s better at that than all the rest of his strengths. I think he’s very genuine, I think he tells them things that – I mean, they are his sons. He’s a coach’s kid, he grew up seeing the impact that his dad had on young people, and I think that’s how he sees his role, trying to mold these young people into doing all the right things all the time.
“My expectation, and what I think Jeff will do this upcoming year is build even better relationships with the team that he already has. I don’t think COVID helped; I don’t think it’s an excuse, but I think the reality of everybody sort of doing their own thing, not being able to get together, the world, this generation is a little bit focused on individuals with individual coaches and it’s just not as much of a team environment as generations ago. But I think that’s a real focus for him in building that team mentality. I know he’s excited about the core group of guys coming back and their belief in Pitt and Pitt basketball.”