PITTSBURGH—When the Blue Devils last came to the Steel City—Jan. 10, 2018—it was evident the home team was in dire straits.
The Petersen Events Center was barely two-thirds full with a half pro-Duke crowd as fans watched the seventh-ranked Blue Devils open up a 26-point halftime advantage without role players Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. Pittsburgh would fall to 0-4 in the ACC, en route to a dismal 0-18 conference ledger just shortly after a run of 13 NCAA tournament appearances in 15 seasons from 2002-2016.
A little more than a year later, the matchup had a totally different feel—the result of the beginnings of a turnaround from first-year head coach and former Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel.
“He knows it’s a day-to-day fight no matter what level if you want to be really good, so I think you all are lucky to have him. He’s lucky to be here because Pitt had a great brand that needed to be reignited, and he’s done that, but he also has added his stuff to go with the past, and I think he’s added the city more,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said to the local media. “He’s always been a big Pittsburgh fan. He loves Pittsburgh. He loves it now, but he’s always loved it, so this is a great situation for all of you I think and for the ACC because they’ll be a force to be reckoned with and they’ll be a tough out, especially at home.”
The program change was evident from the get-go as the Oakland Zoo—Pittsburgh’s famed student section—had every seat filled more than 90 minutes before tipoff. Boos from students taunting Duke's young phenoms, particularly R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, rained down an hour before tipoff. And by the time players were announced, every seat in the building was filled.
Even Jay-Z wanted in on the action, sitting courtside for the matchup.
“Yeah it was different, I mean yeah. It’s my alma mater, it’s a place that I love, it’s people that I love on that bench. It’s a coach that means the world to me. It’s a man that means the world to me,” Capel said of facing Duke. “So that was very weird, walking out of that tunnel, and watching that team warm up, that I wore the jersey, and all those kids, I know em, for that Duke team. Once you tip it off, that’s competition. But it was surreal a little bit.”
On the court, Capel’s team reflected the excitement in the building. With Duke leading 11-6 early the Panthers fought back to tie the game early. A triple from Jared Wilson-Frame knotted the contest at 11 in the opening minutes and ignited the raucous crowd.
While Pittsburgh could not match Duke’s athleticism, the fight was there throughout the contest. Even with the Blue Devils leading by 20 after the break, the Panthers would not back down, showing a gritty spirit to cut the lead to 15. Pittsburgh has already shown significant strides this season especially after the emergence of four-star guard Xavier Johnson, whose strong play helped lead the Panthers to home wins against Louisville and Florida State.
“I’ve watched all their conference games in preparation for this game, and one of the key things is they’re together,” Krzyzewski said. “He and his staff have done a great job of building great camaraderie and belief in one another, so they play as one. They play as one and they go to their strengths.”
The relationship between the coaches was not a distraction throughout the contest, but the coaches admitted emotions were plentiful before and afterwards. Capel and Krzyzewski have become extremely close over the years with Capel spending four years playing under Coach K in the mid 1990s and another seven on his bench from 2011-18.
Capel was also known for his strong recruiting abilities and played a big role in helping Duke become a one-and-done powerhouse. Despite leaving before their arrival, Capel has a strong relationship with the freshmen that took down his Panther squad Tuesday, recruiting them last season and convincing them to take their talents to Durham.
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Capel believes that he’ll soon be able to acquire that type of talent at Pittsburgh and hopes that he can return the program to the Big East powerhouse it was during the Jamie Dixon era of the 2000s.
“I want to get outstanding players that want to be a part of what we want to do, what we’re building and be a part of this university and a part of this community and a part of this program,” Capel said. “I knew it when I took it. I’ve been fortunate in my head coaching career before where I’ve had outstanding players…. I don’t have any doubt that we’ll be able to attract that type of talent here.”
Despite the emotions of facing a former player, Krzyzewski is not new to having his players go on to take the helm elsewhere. After his departure, Capel is now one of six former Blue Devils coaching in Division I.
And, while he wants his former players to have success and build their respective programs, getting a win for his team is still at the forefront of Krzyzewski’s mind.
“It was tough before and now it’s tough after because one of us lost, but I’d still rather have him lose,” Krzyzewski said. “I love him, but I love us a little bit more. I know that’s a selfish kind of love I guess. Unless you love yourself, you can’t love anyone else, let me put it that way. But I love the hell out of him.”