Sidelines with John Clay

Why a Duke departure will affect Kentucky more than a Louisville arrival

Jeff Capel addresses a news conference introducing the former Duke assistant as the new men’s basketball coach for the University of Pittsburgh, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Capel addresses a news conference introducing the former Duke assistant as the new men’s basketball coach for the University of Pittsburgh, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Associated Press

Louisville’s Chris Mack was not the only new ACC head basketball coach officially introduced Wednesday. Pittsburgh announced the hiring of Duke assistant Jeff Capel as its head coach to replace the recently fired Kevin Stallings.

Truth be told, Capel’s hiring could have more of an effect on Kentucky basketball than Mack, even though the latter is now just 80 miles up the road.

Capel was Mike Krzyzewski’s lead recruiter at Duke, and lately the Blue Devils have not only butted heads with John Calipari and the Cats over the services of the nation’s top recruits, Capel has won more than his fair share of the battles.

Check out Rivals’ rankings for the Class of 2018. R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-7 small forward from Canada, is ranked No. 1 by the scouting service. Barrett has signed with Duke. Cameron Reddish, a 6-7 guard from Pennsylvania, is No. 2. Reddish has signed with Duke.

Zion Williamson, the 6-6 man-child from South Carolina ranked third on the list, has committed to the Blue Devils. And Williamson told reporters at the McDonald’s All-American basketball game that he’ll stick with the Blue Devils despite Capel’s departure from Durham.

This 2018 domination is fresh on the heels of a splendid 2017 when Duke signed Marvin Bagley (No. 2), Trevon Duval (5), Wendell Carter (7) and Gary Trent Jr. (18). That fearsome foursome helped Coach K’s club reach the Elite Eight, where it lost to a more experienced Kansas squad in overtime.

Capel’s success had led many to assume he would be the expected successor when the 71-year-old Krzyzewski decided to retire. After all, Capel played at Duke. He has head coaching experience at VCU from 2002-03 through 2005-06 and Oklahoma from 2006-07 through 2010-11. And for the past seven seasons, Capel had served as Coach K’s associate head coach.

Writes Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News and Observer: “His decision to take the Pittsburgh job — after being attached to arguably more attractive opportunities like Georgia Tech and Arizona State in recent years — suggests that either Krzyzewski, now 71, plans on coaching for a good while yet or that Capel was told he was not the successor.”

Capel’s value as a recruiter, however, can’t be overstated. Since his joining the staff, Duke’s recruiting classes ranked No. 1 in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Blue Devils also focused more on the elite one-and-done players Calipari has turned into four Final Four appearances and a national title in his nine years at Kentucky.

Duke won the 2015 title with freshmen starters Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. This year’s team, led by the aforementioned rookies and senior guard Grayson Allen, finished second in the ACC and came up just short of the Final Four.

“Did this team burn Krzyzewski out on one-and-dones?” asks DeCock. “He may have decided he had to play zone. That doesn’t mean he liked doing it. Despite all the talent in next year’s class, Duke has no senior contributors to lead it. (Junior forward Javin DeLaurier looks like Duke’s most promising leadership candidate.) If you start over every year, you’re not a program. That’s certainly not how Krzyzewski built his program at Duke.”

Pittsburgh is thrilled. Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that after Stallings’ trainwreck, Capel provides the Panthers with much-needed hope.

“In Capel, they got just what they needed,” Meyer wote, “someone who could reinvigorate a dejected fan base and start to fill a near-empty Petersen Events Center in the short term while offering a recruiting and talent development prowess that can once again make the Panthers competitive in the ACC in the long term. It’s a sense of reassurance that extends to administrators such as (Heather) Lyke, who said Capel is taking over what she believes to be a top-10 or top-20 job in Division I.”

How this all effects Kentucky remains to be seen. As long as Coach K remains on the job, Duke will be a formidable recruiting foe for any college basketball power, but Capel raised the ante.

In Capel’s absence, Krzyzewski has promoted assistants Nate James and Jon Scheyer to associate head coach roles. According to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, Coach K will hire Chris Carrawell, who has been on former Duke guard Steve Wojciechowski’s staff at Marquette.

Will Coach K continue to go after one-and-done type recruits, or will he alter his recent approach? Stay tuned.

Rivals Top 20 Class of 2018 recruits





R.J. Barrett



Cameron Reddish



Zion Williamson



Bol Bol



Nassir Little

North Carolina


Romeo Langford



Simisola Shittu



Tre Jones



Darius Bazley



Quentin Grimes



EJ Montgomery



Jordan Brown



Anfernee Simons

(NBA Draft)


Keldon Johnson



Immanuel Quickley



Andrew Nembhard



Devon Dotson



Darius Garland



Nazreon Reid



Moses Brown


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