Pitt head coach Jeff Capel and players Greg Elliott, Blake Hinson, and Nike Sibande met with the media in Greensboro on Thursday ahead of the team’s first round game against Iowa State tomorrow. Here is a complete rundown of everything they had to say.
Nike, Greg, Blake, overall being here last week and now returning to Greensboro, what’s the feeling and just being able to get a second chance in this building? Is there a little bit of familiarity for you guys? Is there any comfort in that? Greg?
Elliott: It feels good to be back. We feel like we have some unfinished business. We didn’t win the tournament like we had hopes to do.
I feel like we’re familiar with the place, but I feel like playing with a different basketball will make it a little different. Other than that, I feel like we’re ready to go. Happy to be back.
Sibande: We’re excited to be back. Excited to be back in Greensboro. We was here, what, last week?
Sibande: Man, it’s just exciting to be back, and we have definitely unfinished business to continue to work on.
Hinson: What my boys say. I feel the same way.
Really for any of you guys, in your preparation so far since Tuesday, what’s kind of stood out to you about Iowa State, specifically some of how they play defensively as well?
Elliott: It’s just the way they try to get to the ball. They want to try to make the game their pace. They want to try to be disruptive.
We know we just have to do a good job of trying to take care of the ball, and they look like a team that’s trying to crash the glass. That’s one thing we know we have to get better at.
Sibande: They’re a team that tries to dictate the pace. They try to cause a lot of turnovers. You know, play pretty aggressive. We just have to take care of the ball, you know, play at our pace, and continue to be us.
Hinson: Exactly what my boys said.
Blake, I’m sure you’re anticipating this, but you know a lot of guys on this team. You spent some time in Ames. What does it feel like? Give us your emotions and thoughts on going head-to-head with the team that you know so well?
Hinson: I’m just ready to play my next game in March Madness, and I’m focused on winning.
To follow up on that, Blake, did you have much of a reaction when you saw that this was a possibility of playing a team where you had spent time?
Blake, what was the situation where you came to Iowa State and then left Iowa State?
Hinson: I would rather not say.
For any of you guys, what was your overall take-away 24 hours after the game against Mississippi State, and what have you learned from that to be able to take away now in the round of 64?
Sibande: We learned. We watched a lot of film. We looked over the game. It’s definitely some stuff we took from the game. You know, just continue to rebound the ball at a better level and just continue to be us, get in the paint, make plays, swing it out, make shots, and just continue to play as a unit together.
Elliott: I say something we learned from that game is we took care of the ball. We did a good job. Mississippi State is a team just like Iowa State. They want to try to dictate their pace, force a lot of turnovers.
That’s one thing we didn’t do. We didn’t turn the ball over as much. So I feel like if we can bring that and we’ve got to do a better job of rebounding, we do that, we give ourselves a good chance of winning the game.
Coming off the turnaround that you guys had in Dayton, what is that experience like for a player where you are playing two days ago and now all of a sudden you’re getting to the plane and coming back to Greensboro again? How has that turnaround been for you guys?
Hinson: It’s definitely been a type of a turnaround, but just like we talked about, I’m happy to be here. The familiarity is definitely there. I’m definitely excited to get back on the court and try to win.
Sibande: Anytime we get a chance to continue to extend our season in March, it’s just a blessing. We’re going to definitely take advantage of it. We are blessed to be here, and we look forward to continuing to play our game in March and continue to try to get a win for sure.
Blake, do you still keep in contact with any of the guys from Iowa State that were there when you were there?
Q. What are your thoughts on what you guys have to do to beat Iowa State?
Hinson: Just be Pitt. We just be Pitt, we’re good enough to beat any team at any place, any time. We just be us, and we can be successful.
Blake, just to follow up. I realize you obviously don’t want to talk about the Iowa State thing, but are you happy with the move, and is there anything you can tell us about being at Pitt, and did you feel like it was the right move for you and why?
Hinson: Yeah, I love it here. I love it here. This is my favorite location I’ve ever been. H2P.
Can you talk about some of the connections you’ve made with the guys throughout the year? We all know the tight bond that you have with your teammates, but just overall, how this team has been able to come together, especially in the late moments of the game against Mississippi State to be able to clinch this spot?
Hinson: Yeah. The group is special all the way. Like outside of the teammates, you know what I mean, I’ve made connections with a lot of people out in the city and the team, in the locker room, and the coaching staff.
I’m thankful beyond belief for these people, these teammates and everybody here. I would need a whole hour special of an interview to talk about the love I got for everybody here.
In the brief time that you have had to scout Iowa State and prepare for this game, do they remind you of anyone in the ACC that you have gone up against? Are there any comps to the style of play that they play?
Sibande: Yeah, we play teams like that before. We play — kind of give us like a Florida State type of feel. They like to get up in the ball, pressure the ball, force a lot of turnovers. We dealt with teams like that before, yeah.
I would say the closest comparison, if you ask me, would be probably Florida State or like a West Virginia type of play style.
Elliott: In the ACC I would probably say, like Nike said, probably Florida State. I don’t think they as — they don’t have the length or the size that Florida State has at every position, but — and I would definitely say they play like West Virginia as well because they’re in the same league, so you’re going to get most of the time the same thing from most of those teams, so that’s it.
Not sure if you saw, but Barack Obama, President Obama, has you winning against Iowa State in his bracket.
Hinson: All right, Barack.
He has you guys going to the Elite Eight. Just wanted to get your thoughts on those two bracketology projections.
Hinson: You think Barack going to see this? Barack, what up, man? I love Barack. I’m not going to forget that right there.
Sibande: Man, you know, it feels good to know that Barack Obama, you know, is placing us to get this win, man, but at the end of the day we’ve got to come out and take care of business.
But, you know, just a year ago nobody had us projected to win nothing, so it just feels good to be able to be on the other side of that for sure.
Elliott: That’s super exciting. Just to know that we got people that’s believing in us, all the work we put in. It’s really just a real good feeling.
Capel: Excited to be back in Greensboro. Excited to be part of the Big Dance. It’s been a heck of a week for us already after a really emotional and hard-fought game in Dayton against a good Mississippi State team, and we’re excited to play against a very good Iowa State team.
Blake wasn’t very talkative about his time at Iowa State and leaving, but this is going to be a more common occurrence in the transfer portal era where guys end up running up against teams that they had seen before with more player movement. Have you addressed that much with him at all, or do you have to, and is that something you will as a coach generally have to be more cognizant of the emotional connections or whatever to a previous stop?
Capel: Yeah, I really haven’t. You know, it’s interesting. I don’t think young people are as emotional about this stuff as we maybe adults are. They’re able to move on very, very quickly and turn the page. So for us it’s Pitt against Iowa State. It’s not Blake against Iowa State or Iowa State against Blake. They have an outstanding team. They have an outstanding coaching staff. They’ve done an incredible job, T.J. has, in his second year. The run they made this year, they played in an incredible conference. We have our hands full with Iowa State, not just the emotion of — or not just emotion of Blake playing against Iowa State.
Just wanted to ask, obviously Fede battling back from his injury, wanted to know if there’s an update on him physically, and also wanted to ask about how he is dealing with all of this pressure mentally, trying to battle back and also worry about his own well-being?
Capel: There’s not an update. It’s still kind of day-to-day. We’ll have a better idea today. We traveled yesterday, and all we did was walk-through yesterday. We’ll do more physical stuff today, so we’ll have a better idea after today’s practice about his status.
So right now it’s still kind of day-to-day. I think he is doing okay. You know, it’s interesting because these foreign kids, they don’t understand the tournament like we do. You know, Guillermo and Jorge and Fede, when they walked out in Dayton, they couldn’t believe how many people were there. They were like, What’s this about? Now, I think that makes Federiko a little more anxious to be out there, to be a part of it, but we will do what’s best for him long term, not what’s best in the short term for us. It has to be what’s best for him. We will not put him or anyone out there if there’s going to be any harm for right now or for anything in the future.
The other day, that was the program’s first NCAA tournament win since 2014, and I know there’s still more games to play. There’s more work to do for your team, but have you guys taken a moment to reflect upon that, about the history that this program was able to make the other day?
Capel: We haven’t. You know, when you are in the midst of it and you are still going, you focus on the next thing that’s in front of you. You know, one of the things I’ve talked about is right now we have to remove all the rearview mirrors. We’re just looking straight out the front and what’s ahead of us. When we’re finished, and hopefully it’s a while before we’re finished, then we’ll have time to look behind us and really, you know, talk about what we’ve accomplished. But right now we’re just focused on Iowa State and what we have to do to try to beat really a good basketball team.
You mentioned Iowa State is a great team, I think you said, with the outstanding staff. What did you kind of see basically on how they play defensively? What has stood out? Also, how does kind of a quick turnaround affect your preparation process?
Capel: Well, they are outstanding defensively. They’re very physical. They’re very disciplined. They play with great energy. They’re unbelievably connected on that side of the basketball. You can tell that that’s their identity and that’s what they hang their hat on. They rotate well. They defend the basketball well. Their ball screen defense, their bigs are athletic. They’re energetic, just the physicality in which they play with. So that’s what makes them one of the better defensive teams in the country. As far as the short turnaround, you know, fortunate we’re not playing today. So we were able to, after the travel and everything yesterday, get a lot of rest. You know, we didn’t get out of the arena in Dayton until 1:00, a little bit after 1:00 in the morning. We spent the night. We got up the next morning and flew here. So hopefully we’re rested, and I know we’ll be excited. The adrenaline will be going, and we’ll be ready to go.
So over the course of your time at Pitt in the build of a program, what have you learned about yourself as a coach and how to do this?
Capel: Well, that’s been a journey unto itself. You know, it’s interesting. When I look at my career, and I guess I am looking in the rearview right now, you know, the places where I have been before as a head coach, you know, they’ve been maybe rebuilds or where you’ve got to go in and try to correct some stuff, fix some stuff. When I took over VCU, I had the fortune of being an assistant there for a year. So when I got the job, I kind of knew what we needed to change. I was incredibly fortunate there that the guy that I worked for loved talent. We had talent. We had talented guards. But the thing we had to do was change the image of the program. We weren’t very well thought of in the city of Richmond.
The thing I was most proud of in my four years there was that we changed the image and the character of the program, but it happened quick. Like, we got to the tournament in year two. In year three we got to the NIT. We lost in the finals of the conference tournament. That was back in the CAA where you had to win the conference tournament.
I still remember it was a really bad call at the end of regulation that gave Old Dominion, put it into overtime, and we lost in overtime, and we went to the NIT. That was the first time since the ’80s that that program had been to back-to-back post-seasons.
When I went to Oklahoma, obviously I took over for Kelvin Sampson. The identity of toughness, rebounding, defense, physicality, that was there, but we had to add talent, the talent level, because they lost a lot of guys. And the whole recruiting class blew up once I took over, so we had to add talent.
Now, it helped in my first recruiting class I was able to get a guy named Blake Griffin. That helped a lot. In year two we were in the tournament. Year three we were in the Elite Eight. Then after that it fell apart.
This one I think in my mind when I took over there was part of me that thought, well, this is the way it’s happened. In year two, you’ve turned it. In year two I thought we had a chance to, where I thought we were moving in that direction, and then it fell apart.
So this has taught me patience. You know, it’s really taught me making sure you are surrounding yourself with really good people.
One of the things during the seven years I was at Duke, I had some opportunities, it was really important for me to go somewhere where I felt like the administration, the athletic director and president had my back. You really find that out when you go through tough things. You really find out who is with you.
And I’m grateful. That’s probably the thing I’m most grateful for because the first four years were hard. Last year was really hard. Last offseason was really hard, but you find out who is really with you.
And I got to find that out where the first two jobs you’ve got all these people on your side, kissing your butt, telling you how great you are, and then when things turn south, then you see.
Things were south here early, so I got to see who is really with me. It’s been interesting this year now that we won looking at it from that standpoint.
So I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful for it all.
When you look at Iowa State, what is your biggest concern? What do you guys have to do well to win?
Capel: We have to rebound the basketball. They’re a really good offensive rebounding team. We have to be able to play through physicality and not turn the basketball over. Especially live ball turnovers. They turn those into baskets.
Then we have to be able to execute with strength against their defense.
Jeff, you guys work some crazy hours during the season. How important is it for you to have your son with you at the podium today?
Capel: It’s cool, man. It’s really, really cool. You know, when I wanted to be a head coach again, one of the things that I wanted to do was to be able to give back to this stage because he wasn’t born the last time I was a head coach and was on this stage.
My girls, they were, like, you know, three and one. Actually, I don’t think Syd was born. She was in my wife’s stomach when we were in the Elite Eight. For them to see — but this one loves basketball, so for him to be able to be here is really, really cool.
Jeff, what have you seen from Guillermo and Jorge, especially Guillermo with the game that he played, and how they prepare and they embrace the scouting report, as far as teaching them, coming to a new place, and how they’ve been able to accept that big game and then turn around quickly for more preparation?
Capel: Those guys have been a joy to coach all year long. I mean, their energy and enthusiasm about playing basketball, learning about it, getting better, working, and being really good teammates, it’s infectious. They’ve gotten better each day they’ve been here because of their attitude. They have some older guys that have really, really helped them through this journey. I’m really proud of both of them. Guillermo, obviously, got a lot of talk about the last game, which he should have. I thought Jorge was equally good in the first half. He took a charge. He really did some good things defensively. I just think they’ve gotten better and better as the season has gone on, and like I’ve said all year, I think their upside is through the roof.
Jeff, talking to Greg earlier this week, he talked about how just playing the first four games when a lot of teams have a week off before preparing for their games on Thursday or Friday, it’s able to build up some momentum just playing in a couple of day stretch. How do you think that’s affected the team in a positive way?
Capel: Hopefully it will. We have a game under our belt already, so hopefully the nerves will be out. Obviously, for some of our guys, it was their first time.
Even for the guys that have been here, with the exception of Nelly, this was their first time kind of maybe in a lead role in the NCAA tournament. Even if you have been here, even if you have played in it, when you get out there for the first time in another season, it’s anxious. You’re anxious.
We have that under our belt. Hopefully we can still have the same excitement. I know we’ll have that, but we can settle in a little bit quicker.
As an ACC guy, not just with Pitt, but from your roots, how much responsibility, how much importance do you put on carrying the league’s banner and having already won a game and then going even further?
Capel: Yeah. I mean, it’s not our sole responsibility as a program, but it’s certainly something that we have great pride in. You know, I thought that — I think our league is way better than the computers think or maybe some of the media thinks. Hopefully we were able to prove that this year. I think we’ve proved it every year in the tournament.
The teams that have gotten here have done an outstanding job for the most part. I saw a stat yesterday, we have by far the most wins, most Final Fours. It’s not even close. Hopefully we can help do that this year.
You guys did a relatively good job of containing Smith against Mississippi State the other day. Turned the ball over five times. Do you see anything similar from Iowa State’s bigs that could present similar challenges to what Smith gave you?
Capel: They’re similar. There’s probably more of them. They’re physical. They’re athletic. They have great motors. They play really, really hard, and they’re threats down there. So we’re going to have our hands full with all of them, with their whole team, with the way they play. They play a lot of guys, and they get after it. They’re well-coached. I know they’re going to be anxious and hungry.
As a little bit of a follow-up to that, when you watch them on film preparing for this, is there a guy or two who stands out to you that you think, That could give us a problem?
Capel: I never go into it thinking about one or two guys. I think about their team. I think what makes them good is they’re a really good team. They have guys that can step up, guys to make plays for them on both sides of the floor.
I’ve been really impressed with their whole team, and so, again, we’ll have our hands full. We’re anxious. We’re excited about it, and we’ll be ready to go.
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