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Jeff Capel works to boost Pitt players’ spirits without accepting defeat

Jerry DiPaola
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Pitt coach Jeff Capel greets Trey McGowens after he scored his 30th point against Florida State on Jan. 14. Pitt upset No. 11 Florida State, 75-62.

Jeff Capel grew up in an atmosphere of winning: state championship in high school; Final Four berth as a player; and national championship as an assistant at Duke.

Winning matters to Pitt’s coach, who has presided over 174 victories with three teams.

Yet, Pitt’s slide toward the bottom of the ACC standings, triggered by its current four-game losing streak, doesn’t bother him as much as his team’s inability to appropriately handle what they can control.

“If we play hard and we do everything we can control at our level, we’ll live with the result,” he said Thursday after practice. “For us, it’s not necessarily about just the result.

“It’s things in the game that we can control that we aren’t doing. Our level of concentration, our attention to detail, how hard we play in different moments, how mentally tough we are. Those are things we should be able to control, and we haven’t done that.”

The chief culprit at Clemson was poor defense.

“We were being selfish. People were getting beat off the dribble,” freshman guard Xavier Johnson said. “There was no help side. We have to get back to doing that.”

Capel recognizes his young team with little depth — now missing Au’Diece Tony (hand) and Terrell Brown (strep throat) — has a formidable task in the ACC, a conference with seven teams in the Associated Press Top 25. It doesn’t get any easier, even with unranked Syracuse (15-6, 6-2) coming to Petersen Events Center on Saturday. The Orange already defeated Pitt (12-9, 2-6), 74-63.

The difficulty of the schedule is part of the reason Capel didn’t lose his temper at Clemson on Tuesday when an unranked team that had lost five of its previous six games led by 28 at halftime. He is trying to keep this season in perspective while starting three freshmen.

Capel didn’t scream and overturn furniture in the locker room. He only urged his team to play harder, promising to use players off the bench that wanted “to fight,” and then fulfilling that promise.

“I don’t know how well kids react to (tantrums) these days,” he said. “Kids are different. Does that make them more scared? But it’s happened (displacement of furnitute), and I’m sure it will happen again.”

In years past, he has been angry enough after a loss to bring back his team for a 12:01 a.m. practice, because it counted as the next day.

“The rules don’t allow you to do that anymore,” he said.

When he lost to UNC Wilmington, 81-50, as coach at VCU in 2003, he let his anger get the best of him at the post-game news conference.

“I was so upset afterwards, I made a comment that it looked like I took a van that morning and just drove around Richmond (Va.) and grabbed some guys and put them in a uniform came out and played,” he said.

It’s not certain he embarrassed his players, but VCU did win its next eight games. Nonetheless, Capel has changed.

“I try not to do that stuff publicly now. I don’t want to humiliate anyone,” he said.

At Pitt, Capel walks a thin line between rationalizing that four of the losses occurred against No. 2 Duke, No. 9 North Carolina, No. 15 Louisville and No. 23 N.C. State and making sure everyone knows that’s not OK.

“When you lose a lot, sometimes you can accept it,” he said. “It can just be, ‘This is how it is.’ I don’t want that. I don’t want them to feel good about it.”

But he added, “I don’t want them to feel defeated.”

One problem might be his players are not accustomed to losing. As such, they could have a difficult time reacting properly to a long losing streak.

“A lot of these teams have guys on their roster who have a reference point for this,” Capel said. “We don’t. We have relied heavily on freshmen.

“They don’t have a reference point on how to get through this. Our returning guys don’t. They didn’t win last year.

“This is something we have to do collectively. As a coaching staff, we have to teach them this and try to make it where they aren’t defeated going into the game thinking ‘Here we go again.’ ”

Note: Brown and Toney did not practice Thursday. Capel did not rule them out of the Syracuse game, saying they will be re-evaluated closer to tip-off.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.