Is Pitt Basketball back?

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Is Pitt Basketball back?

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It’s not hard to point out the obvious about the Pittsburgh Panthers Men’s Basketball Program. They have been a home of losing for the past two years. Its attendance records were at its lowest point ever since the Peterson Events Center opened in 2002. Kevin Stallings practically drove the program into the ground after Jamie Dixon’s 13-year reign. After going winless in ACC play last year, Pitt fired Stalling after two lackluster seasons.

It was very obvious that Pitt needed a spark of excitement again, a new leader who can connect with players, school and the community. Pitt eventually got that in Jeff Capel, who worked for Mike Krzyzewski (head coach at Duke) for 6 seasons at Duke as an assistant coach and as their head scout. Capel coached at Oklahoma when Blake Griffin was their star, going to an Elite Eight in 2008. Capel knows how to coach and get big-time recruits.

As soon as Pitt hired Capel, a spark of excitement went off in the program. People were buying more season tickets, and the media started to cover the team more; it was obvious Capel was starting the foundation of something special.

However, the team Capel has is very young, starting 3 freshman Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson, and Au’diese Toney. In addition, they only having one senior, Jared Wilson-Frame, so it seemed Pitt was heading for another rebuilding year. Starting the year, Pitt was projected to finish dead last in the ACC, only winning 3-4 games.

This year, Pitt went to Iowa to face the 14th ranked Hawkeyes. Iowa was favored by 11, and with Pitt being so inexperienced, they were not expected to compete. Boy did Pitt wake them up. Pitt came out giving everything they had at Iowa. With tough defense, quality shots, and shooting 40% from three-point range, Pitt had a 6 point lead at the half.

However, turnover after turnover in the second half caused Pitt to play behind most of the way. Down 69-68, Iowa forward Tyler Cook missed a free throw with ten seconds left to go. McGowens got the rebound and took it to the basket with less than 4 seconds left. He missed the wild layup and another wild shot by Sidy N’Dir missed and Pitt lost 69-68. Even though Pitt lost the game, Pitt in a way proved some of the doubters wrong that they can compete with a very good team like Iowa, and push them to the limit.

However, last Saturday Pitt finally was able to do something they couldn’t do under Stallings: win an ACC game. Pitt took down Louisville for the first time since 2010, and the first home win against the Cardinals since 2006. In the game, Pitt had full advantage but kept letting up leads like 13, 14, and even 16 points slip away and the game went into OT. Pitt fought and won the game 89-86, a sigh of relief for Pitt fans.

Pitt wasn’t done there. After a hard-fought loss against 13 ranked NC State, Pitt returned home and welcomed 11 ranked Florida State, who nearly beat 1 ranked Duke at home. The Oakland Zoo and the fanbase felt something different about this game.

Florida State was very cold from three-point range throughout the entire game, going 2-22 (9.1%) which kept Pitt in the game. But there was one play that gave us a glimpse of old games at the Pete. It was Trey McGowen’s coast to coast 3 point play, which put Pitt up 6. I have watched that play many times since the game was over, and the bench and the crowd’s reaction after that play was special. Even though there were only 6,780 people in attendance, it still felt like the roof was going to come off.

It was a sign that Pitt fans have been waiting for a while now, and this team could be the stepping stones of what is to come of this program. To say that Pitt basketball is back, could be a little bit of an overstatement because I don’t think one win can signify if a team is back or not, however. If, and this is a very big if, if Pitt can find somehow to beat Duke at home, on a national stage, then Pitt can say that are back and ready to make waves.

Jeff Capel has definitely re-energized this program to where people are excited to watch Pitt basketball again. With the young talent this team has and the possible recruits Capel is trying to get to come here, it might be much sooner than expected when Pitt is back in contention to win big time games and make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.