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Capel’s Basketball Resurrection Has the Zoo Rocking Again

Head coach Jeff Capel is restoring respectability and re-establishing the relationship between Pitt’s students and Pitt’s student athletes.

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“We Want Duke.”

That was the exclamation point Pitt’s student section, the “Oakland Zoo,” applied to the recent upset of No. 11 Florida State.

“I tried not to pay attention to it,” Pitt basketball savior-in-the-making Jeff Capel maintained.​

Capel knows better.

He knows Duke, having played and coached at Duke. And he knows the impending visit to the Petersen Events Center by No. 1 Duke, or whatever Duke happens to be ranked by next Tuesday night might prove to be a little too much, a little too soon.

But the kids can dream, can’t they?​

Capel appeared to at least appreciate the sentiment. And he’s absolutely embracing the atmosphere the “Zoo” is once again creating now that basketball games are a much-anticipated event again at Pitt.

“I love our crowd,” Capel continued. “I heard them doing the Florida State war chant (a mock Tomahawk Chop), I love it. I love the energy that’s in the building.
That’s the way I remember this program and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come here. I knew what it has been and so I know, therefore, what it can become again. And to feel that energy in the building, to see the people, to see the students, to see the ‘Zoo,’ to see them excited again about men’s basketball is a really, really cool thing.

“And our guys love it. Our guys love it and they appreciate it and they feed off of it.”

There’s nothing not to love so far about the relationship that has been re-established between Pitt’s students and Pitt’s student athletes.

Or about the respectability Capel has already re-established.

He took over a program that had gone 0-for-the-ACC last season, one that was enduring a conference losing streak that would grow to 23 consecutive games in the wake of Pitt’s loss to No. 15 North Carolina on Jan. 5.

Then the Panthers beat Louisville, 89-86, in overtime on Jan. 9.

The next demon to exorcise was the program’s 13-game losing streak against ranked teams, a run of ineptitude that had been extended via losses to No. 14 Iowa, the No. 15 Tar Heels and No. 15 N.C. State this season.

Chopping down No. 11 Florida State checked that box. 

The manner in which Pitt is suddenly doing what it has been doing, meanwhile, is as attention-getting as what the Panthers have accomplished so far has been impressive.

Three freshmen (Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney) start, and everyone plays hard. The Panthers drive the lane, take charges, dive for loose balls and, if nothing else, get themselves to the free throw line with remarkable regularity.

The rest they’re figuring out as they go along.

The signature sequence against Florida State might have occurred midway through the second half. Sophomore center Terrell Brown blocked an attempted layup by 7-foot-4 FSU center Christ Koumadje and seconds later McGowens took the ball to the hole at the other end, scored and was fouled.

It didn’t even matter much that he missed the subsequent free throw.

Pitt was starting to pull away and the place was going crazy.

“We feel like we’re gonna fight every time we play,” Capel explained. “I think if we fight and we can play with some semblance of intelligence, we’ll have a chance.

“There are teams that we’ll play against that are more talented than us. That’s the reality, but that doesn’t mean they’re better teams. If you’re a team that’s together and you execute and you fight and you have a little bit of intelligence, then you can have a chance.

“We are continuing to grow in those areas.”

The other game-changing ingredient at Pitt this season is a fearlessness Capel insists has been there from the beginning.

That characteristic was apparent individually and collectively against the No. 11 Seminoles.

No wonder the students were chanting about No. 1 Duke.

“We’re trying to make that the culture of this program, toughness, togetherness and fighting every second you’re out there,” he maintained.

The “Zoo” enthusiastically approves.

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