Pitt Basketball is Finding a New Rock Bottom

(AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

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It was the end of the 2018 college basketball season and it felt like the Pitt Panther program was at an all-time low.  The Panthers had just went winless in their ACC conference matchups, and it appeared the administration had chosen the wrong man, Kevin Stallings, to replace long-time Pitt coach, Jamie Dixon.  In just two seasons, the replacement of the program's most winningest coach had been ousted.

After many false rumors of Sean Miller and Archie Miller, among others, having interest in the new opening, there was a moment in time where it didn't look like anyone would want to inherit the sorry state that Stallings had left behind.  The University also were facing a hefty buyout of the failed coach in order to terminate his contract early.

It felt like the true rock bottom of a program who had been the No. 1 seed in the entire NCAA tournament just nine seasons before.  The Pitt Panthers were in a free fall.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a real candidate for the head coaching position emerged.  Jeff Capel, assistant coach for Duke, and previous head coach of Oklahoma and VCU, had interest in the job.  

Panther fans loved the hire.  Here was a guy who got to study under Coach Mike Kryzewski, one of the best to ever do it, especially in the ACC.  Surely he had picked up some recruiting techniques from Coach K.  The worry at the time was once Coach K retired, would Capel leave the Panthers for the job.  Oh man, how foolish we were.

It has now become abundantly clear that without the mere existence of one, Blake Griffin, coach Jeff Capel may no longer be in Division 1 college basketball in any capacity. Nonetheless as a head coach for a team that used to perennially compete for the top spots in the NCAA Tournament.  Aside from a couple successful seasons at VCU and the one great season at Oklahoma with Griffin, Capel has shown no ability to coach at a high level.  In addition to rarely acquiring any top recruits, he continues to lose those he can bring in, to the transfer portal.

Now one can argue that is just the nature of college athletics now, right?  The transfer portal has created this unregulated free agency program in college sports, and it really has gone off the rails of as of late.  However, even with many teams being impacted by the transfer portal, no team has lost recruits like the Panthers have.

Yesterday brought with it some good news, that center John Hugley was returning to the team.  Hugley was clearly the most talented on the team, which admittedly is not saying much.  Plus, the more NCAA Tournament games I watch, the more I realize that, among the nation's big men, Hugley is a mid-tier guy at best.  However, his return is more of a positive than a negative.

Unfortunately, it was reported today that sharp-shooter Ithiel Horton entered the portal.  This is a shame because the school and Capel did stick with him through his legal troubles he had all season.  It would have been nice for Horton to pay that back with one more year.  So I don't know if that is more of an indictment of Horton's lack of loyalty in this case or Capel, but it's another chink in the withering away armor of Jeff Capel.

Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tweeted today that Pitt has lost more players to the transfer portal than any other team in the ACC since Capel was hired.  He went on to say Capel has not lost fewer than four players in any given offseason.  That's an indictment of the coach.  

Even worse, the University is staring down another huge contract buy-out after Capel was extended in January of 2020.  So while Pitt AD Heather Lyke continues to voice confidence in Capel after four losing seasons, it could be veiled by the school just not having the money to buy him out.  

It's a true new rock bottom for the program, in my opinion.  Sure, the Panthers did actually win some conference games this season, but that came after losing to Monmouth, the Citadel, and UMBC at home.  Then this offseason has seen another exodus of players into the portal, and a contract situation that is handcuffing the entire University.  It's a shame, and I'm not sure I have felt any worse about the Pitt basketball program than I do right now.