PITTSBURGH -- It's been two years since the Pitt Panthers were 4-1 in the ACC. That was also the last time this program beat Duke, who they will travel to face in their next contest. At that moment, players announced "Pitt is back" but their optimism was cruelly crushed by the hard reality of conference play and they finished the season on a 2-8 skid.
Pitt has rarely even sniffed that kind of success, but after two years of turnover left behind a team staffed almost entirely by transfer products, the Panthers are knocking on the door of the top-25 and NCAAˇTournament contention for the first time since that 2020-21 season.
Four members of the starting five - Iowa State transfer Blake Hinson, Marquette transfer Greg Elliot, junior college transfer Fede Federiko and Colgate transfer Nelly Cummings - transferred to Pitt this past offseason.
The fifth member is Jamarius Burton, who arrived in Oakland two years ago as a transfer from Texas Tech, the sixth man, Nike Sibande, became a Panther two years ago after transferring in from Maimi (OH), and two more players - twin brothers Jorge and Guillermo Diaz-Graham - are freshmen in their first year with the program. Just two Panthers on scholarship - John Hugley and Nate Santos - have played multiple years at Pitt after starting their careers with the program.
Before that group rattled off 10 wins in 12 tries and vaulted themselves up the ACC standings, they were a mismatched group of new faces who arrived at different times and didn't know one another. Chemistry was expected to be artificially low, but something about this group allowed them to connect immediately.
"We didn’t get together as a group, as a team until the start of the fall semester," Capel said. "We’re usually together in July but we had several guys that were not here for different reasons. So the first time we were all together was the end of August so that was something I worried about. But once we got together, it was pretty obvious right away that the pieces fit."
"Fit" might be understating the connections this team has with one another. Listen to any Panther share their experiences practicing and playing with this team and they will gush about much they love playing together. The results have shown up on the court, with Pitt playing a resilient brand of basketball reliant on smart, sharp and passionate play.
Capel can see in practice, games and away from the court that they relish playing - and winning - together. While chemistry is a trait he's tried to foster in all his teams, this group has made it a reality.
“[Playing for one another is] all we've talked about," Capel said. "Now, we talked about it in the past too, but it seems to have resonated with this group of guys."
Capel would love to take credit for the camaraderie that has been fostered among this team, but says it has mostly been fostered naturally by these players, who he says genuinely enjoy each other and life in college basketball alongside their teammates. That said, he did use a new meeting format this past fall that helped pull each of the players together.
"One of the guys on my staff came up with the idea of having these meetings based on words and really just bringing something up, having the guys sending in a picture of one of their favorite moments of their life," Capel said. "We’d all get together and the picture would flash on the screen and the guy would get up for two to three minutes and talk about that moment. So it was a way for us to get to know each other and get to see someone besides as just a teammate or basketball player.”
Age and experience also helped the Panther overcome a 1-3 start that included blowout losses to Michigan and West Virginia. The adversity, the ability to overcome it and subsequent corrections have only made this team stronger, according to Capel.
He's hoping that this team can take lessons from that 2020-21 team and the rough start they've had this season. Mixing success into a season that began in such a low place can cause a team to get complacent, but Capel is counting on the experience and intelligence to help prevent a second-half slide.
"All of us have different experiences, whether it’s Greg from Marquette, Nelly At Colgate, Blake’s experiences at Colgate and Iowa State. We all have experience - [Jamarius Burton] at Texas Tech and Wichita - good and bad," Capel said. "They’ve told me some stuff about teams they’ve been a part of that they’ve experienced and they’ve learned. So the thing we talked about was bring all those experiences with us - good and bad - and lets try to learn from them and not let that happen here.”
The Panthers are back in unfamiliar territory after dropping a tight contest to Clemson. Their last loss came more than a month ago to Vanderbilt but this time, Pitt won't have the benefit of home-court advantage or opponents like North Florida or Sacred Heart to help them bounce back.
Instead, they'll head south to Durham, North Carolina for a date with No. 24 Duke and will have to lean on their chemistry to survive the hostile environment that awaits them at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"Hopefully we get off the mat this time but the opponent is different," Capel said. "It won’t be at home. It’s no disrespect to the opponent we played after Vanderbilt, but this is different. We’re going to play at Duke, one of the most tradition-laden and best programs in college athletics, so it’s a big-time opportunity for us.”
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