Pitt’s Return to the NCAA Tournament is a Long-Time Coming


By Ray Porter Jr.

It’s hard to remember the last time the Pitt Panthers basketball team made the NCAA Tournament. After all, it was seven years ago (2016) when the team finished 21-12 (9-9 in the ACC), their head coach was Jaime Dixon, and they had players named James Robinson, Jamel Artis, Mike Young, Cam Johnson, and Ryan Luther. Not only did that team bow out in the first round vs. Wisconsin, Dixon himself also bowed out to Texas Christian University and was replaced by Kevin Stallings, who led the Panthers to two nightmarish seasons and was eventually replaced by Jeff Capel, who was not only given the task of fixing the mess left by Stallings but he was also expected to return them to the Big Dance since he was a former Duke Assistant.

After seasons of 14–19, 16–17, 10–12, and 11–21 seasons, Capel finally got the Panthers back to the NCAA Tournament in 2022-23 with a 22-11 record (14-6 ACC), a Top 25 National Ranking, good enough for a First Four matchup from Mississippi State Tuesday night at 9:10 pm. Capel’s efforts earned him the ACC Coach of the Year and finalists for the for Ben Jobe and Phelan National Coach of the Year awards, and a Werner Ladder Naismith College Coach of the Year Semifinalist.

And not to mention that the Panthers were ‘that’ close to becoming ACC Regular-Season Champions for the first time in school history as they were in first place the final week of the season.

The Panthers are making their 27th NCAA Tournament appearance and are 24-28 all-time against teams currently in the SEC, including a 1-3 mark in NCAA Tournament action. They also earned four Quad 1 wins during the season and were tied for fourth among power conference teams with seven road wins.

Capel’s work with Pitt was truly recognized by the Tournament Committee, especially since Clemson and North Carolina (Fellow ACC teams) didn’t make it. Their 88-81 loss to Notre Dame hurt the most, but their win vs. Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC Tournament definitely helped ease the pain and get their ticket punched.

But once again, the kudos go to Capel, who not only got it done without their best player coming into the season (John Hugely), but they were able to get it done with the additions via the transfer portal (Nelly Cummings, Blake Hinson, Greg Elliott, Fede Federiko) and each one made an impact: Hinson co-led the team (with Jamarius Burton) with 15.6 PPG, and led the team with 6.2 rebounds per game, he was also a threat behind the 3-point line. Cummings contributed 11 PPG, and led the team with 4.8 assists per game,  Elliott 10.4 PPG, and Federiko, 5.6 rebounds per game.

Nike Sibande garnered Sixth Man of the Year, and Burton (First Team) and Hinson (Second Team) earned all-conference recognition as announced on ACC Network’s ACC PM show Monday evening. Capel and Sibande become Pitt’s first major award winners since joining the ACC, with Burton and Hinson becoming the first set of teammates to earn All-ACC accolades in the same season.

It was quite a year, and the Tournament Bid was the icing on the cake.

So now, the Panthers will try to get their first NCAA Tournament win since the 2013-14 season and hope that this visit to the Big Dance will be the first of many in the years to come. With Capel, they have that opportunity.

Notes: During his Tuesday News Conference in Dayton, Ohio, Capel said that Federiko is a game-time decision Wednesday against Mississippi State after tweaking his knee in the ACC Tournament Game vs. Georgia Tech.

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Image: Vince Butts/Urban Media Today