Pitt basketball coach Jeff Capel talks Panthers, 2019-2020
Q. I know, Jeff, that you wanted to establish a defensive identity right out of the gate. A lot of success with a very young team. One of the top team’s in the league as forcing turnovers, almost 15 a game. Think only two other teams had more. Where do you go in year two? What are your expectations on the defensive side of the ball this year?
JEFF CAPEL: I think we have an opportunity to be better defensively than we were last year. I think, first and foremost, we’ll have experience. These two guys beside me, along with our other sophomore, Au’diese Toney, they got a lot of experience last year, played a lot of minutes.
We added depth in the backcourt. We have more quality depth that we can play, and then I think our inside guys have gotten better, Terrell Brown was improved, he’s gotten stronger, mentally he’s in a better place where he has confidence in himself.
And then, you know, we added a grad transfer, and we have a freshman that we think have chances to give us quality depth there. So I think we have an opportunity to be an even better defensive team, which my hope is that it helps us to become a better team in general.
Q. Coach, talk about the decision to add Ronald to the coaching staff and what he brings to this team, being able to be that player/coach type of person for you?
JEFF CAPEL: You know, it was an easy decision for me to bring Ronald Ramon onto our staff. I have gotten to know Ronald since I took the job. Last year, he was rehabbing an injury over at our place. He was coming over, and so I got to spend a lot of time with him.
I talked to him a lot about his teams when he played and what made them so good, what was the culture like. You know, we were at a dinner the other night, and I was listening to Ronald talk, and I think he said the most games he lost in a season at Pitt was seven, which is really amazing.
He’s a great guy. He was an outstanding player there at Pitt and overseas in his professional year. He got back from the World Cup with the Dominican National team.
He has a lot of experience. He wore the jersey. That’s something that’s very, very important to me. I think he — he loves the program. I think he represents us and what we want to do.
So when the opportunity presented itself, when I had the position open, there was really no one else that I talked to. He was the only guy. You know, it was a point in his career where he was ready to make the decision to be done playing, and we’re really, really excited.
Q. Question for both players, it is really kind of rare that freshman have the kind of impact that both of you guys did last year. I wanted to ask each of you what your experience was like playing as a freshman in a year that the league was so old. And then secondly, how did the lessons you learned last year prepare, shape the season ahead for you?
TREY McGOWENS: Can you repeat that? I’m sorry.
Q. Want to talk about the impact you made as a freshman. Kind of unusual. What was the year like for you being a freshman in a year that the league was so old, you’re playing against so many older guys, what did you learn? And how did what you learn prepare you for your sophomore season? What are your expectations for this year?
TREY McGOWENS: I feel like the biggest thing was mentally just trying to keep the right mindset the whole time, not getting too high, not getting too low.
Then Coach, he brought us in, talked to us about what he went through at Duke, and we kind of had similar circumstances. Just trying to learn.
XAVIER JOHNSON: The main thing I learned from my freshman year is that you have to be composed and you have to stay locked in and maintain the body. That’s one of the main things I’m carrying into this year.
Q. Coach, from the podium, what are the dynamics like coaching with your brother? Obviously you have a familial relationship, are there fine lines, places you don’t cross, can’t cross? What’s behind the curtain?
JEFF CAPEL: It has been relatively easy. You know, when I was — when I got this job, putting together my staff, I understood the challenges that this job presented certainly being a part of the best conference in the country, and then having to greatly improve our talent, and then I knew development was going to be very important.
Also, for me, with the climate that we’re in, in college basketball, it was imperative for me to have people that I trusted and people that I knew. There’s no one that fit that bill better than my brother. He’s qualified for the position, he’s been a head coach, and he was a very good player in this league. He had covered the league as far as TV is concerned, he knew — you know, he knows the ACC.
I think he’s really good with the guys both in recruiting and then in development, and not just development on the floor, developing them as young men. And then there is no one that I trust more than him.
It’s been a pretty easy transition.
Q. Coach, just what can you say about — you spoke a little bit about it, your takeaways from the first season with Pitt, and obviously Pitt has been in somewhat of a transition over the last few seasons. What can you say about getting back to what you believe Pitt is and to describe that a little bit?
JEFF CAPEL: You know, I thought we had a lot of growth as a program in year one. It didn’t necessarily equate to as many wins as we would have liked. I think if you look at the wins off the court, the wins that we did as far as growth and development of the young people in our program, exciting and giving hope to our fan base, trying to develop habits, not just change them, but develop good habits, and then having — you know, having an opportunity as we head into year two to have guys with some experience where now they understand what the standards are and they can help teach it where it is not just me and my coaching staff.
So I thought year one was very positive as far as taking steps forward as a program. You know, this has been one of the better programs in college basketball. If you look at — I think it was a 15-year period with 13 of those 15 years Pitt was in the NCAA Tournament, they were relevant on a national scale, multiple Big East championships. This was one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball. It was voted that.
Those are all the things that appealed to me when they came after me for this job. You know, to a certain extent, it was exciting that it was down, that it was a rebuild because it gives me an opportunity to build it exactly how I want to build it.
I understand that that takes time. We want to have a solid foundation. Anything that’s sustainable is built on solid foundation, and that’s what we’re trying to establish right now.
Our goal right now is to take another big step this year, like I mentioned earlier. I think these guys that we have back, we have four guys returning for us that played significant minutes last year, three of them are sophomores, one is a junior. I think they have all gotten better. Then we have added talent, I think, around with freshman, with JUCO, with grad transfers, you know, and regular traditional transfers.
So we’re excited about that. We think we have an opportunity to take another step this year.
Q. Coach, as Trey pointed out, you played as a freshman. What’s your assessment of the impact these guys made as freshman, and what do you look for from them in their sophomore season?
JEFF CAPEL: I thought they had outstanding freshmen seasons, way better than me, you know, because they were in a very different circumstance. You know, for me as a freshman, Duke didn’t necessarily need me to play well in order for us to win. You know, the program was established. There were already standards of excellence in place.
I played with I thought the best player in the country who was a senior, which is a rarity now, in Grant Hill. So the expectations were very, very different for me than they were for these two guys.
You know, the reality of it is, that in order for us to have any chance of winning last year, they had to play well. That’s a different type of pressure than I experienced as a freshman. I thought they handled that very, very well because it can be overwhelming, especially this league. You know, night in and night out you’re going against elite players at the respective positions that they play. You can’t have a night off.
I thought they handled themselves really well. They went through what most freshmen go through, which they had some challenging times, but I was really proud of the way they stuck with it and fought and figured things out on the fly.
I think those experiences will really help them — I know it is already helped them, I have seen the progress they have made as players, I have seen how hard they have worked, you know, since the season was over with, the time that they have put in on their games, on their bodies, on getting really good shape so they are more prepared this year than they were last year.
Q. Xavier, from the podium, you have several freshmen in this year, you have one year under your belt. Are you finding yourself to be a coach and a mentor? Are you leading these guys, trying to show them a little bit of what you learned last year?
XAVIER JOHNSON: So we have a bunch of new players. We only have four returns, as Coach said. The main thing that my job is to make everybody else around me better and to teach the freshmen from my experiences.
Q. Trey, anything from last year that surprised you as being a freshman that you may convey to the newbies?
TREY McGOWENS: Just being prepared for success early. Just expect it so when it comes, it is not overwhelming.
Q. For Trey and Xavier, what can you say about the early experience you have gotten, not a lot of returning players, but you have got some experience to bring forward, just what that’s given to you going into the season? Secondly, what can you say about Coach and what he’s done for the program in a short amount of time?
TREY McGOWENS: The experience last year, one of the biggest things was Coach trusted us to make decisions early on and play heavy minutes. I mean, I feel like that was the biggest thing that helped us play so well.
Then just going in to this summer, we worked hard, he told us what he with needed to work on and really just — we kind of kept a close relationship. I mean, I think we’ll be really good going into this year.
XAVIER JOHNSON: Basically the same thing. Coach put a lot of trust in us. Not really too much pressure, but it was pressure on our backs because we both had to play well, not just — everybody had to play well, but mainly us two guys, with he had to put the ball in the hole.
One of the main things we have to carry over this year is the same confidence and we have to know how to win.
Q. Coach, last question from the podium, I know it is one game at a time, I know you’re trying to get to the start of the season, but you’re going back to Cameron this year as a head coach. What’s that going to feel like, do you think?
JEFF CAPEL: You know, it will be exciting. It is one of the best places in all of college basketball to play. I’m excited to take my team. I don’t think anyone that we have that’s a player will have competed there, and so I know it will be exciting for them to have a chance to play there, to play Duke. And so I’m excited for it. I’m excited for the opportunity to go against one of the best.