GREENSBORO, N.C. — Pitt head coach Jeff Capel along with players Jamarius Burton, Blake Hinson, and Nike Sibande met with the media on Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum. They discuss their journey so far in the tournament and preview their game against Xavier tomorrow.
Here is a complete rundown of everything they had to say.
Jamarius, this Xavier team plays a lot different than the last two teams you guys have played, but as you have said before, playing in the ACC, you guys are used to playing different teams. How do you guys switch from playing a team that plays at a different pace and against now one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country?
Burton: Definitely. Like you said, they’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country percentage-wise. They have a lot of different guys who can shoot the basketball. So there’s going to be some guys that we’re going to have to respect on the floor as opposed to other opponents.
I asked this question to Nelly in the locker room yesterday, but this is a time of year where areas of the country are learning about teams that they haven’t known about all year long. What do you want the national audience that’s going to watch you guys on CBS tomorrow, what do you want those guys to know about this team?
Hinson: We really want to win, and we’re just a humble and hungry group.
Sibande: I would say we just play hard. We come out and we’re going to compete every day and every possession, and we ultimately want to win every game we’re playing in.
Burton: I would just say that for our group, we’re just connected. You can see that connectivity on the floor with our tight huddles, the way we interact with each other, and our just competitive spirit from coaching staff down.
Guys, do you feel that playing on Tuesday sort of kind of gave you guys a leg-up tomorrow and kind of allowed you to get off to that 22-2 start?
Burton: I would just say for us it just allowed us to get our feet wet in this tournament. You know, it allowed us to get comfortable, you know, with what’s going to be going down as far as, you know, one game happening from Tuesday and having to travel. It’s something that we’ve been able to pick up on, and it’s helped us definitely.
Sibande: Yes, I would say it definitely helped us. Playing Tuesday, you know, we got — like Jamarius said, we got our feet wet. We were able to go out and compete and come out with a win.
I feel like it definitely helped us for these last games.
Hinson: It sure felt the same exact way. I was very thankful for the play-in game, being able to play playing against a really good team at that and really got, you know, your feet wet, just like Jamarius said.
This is for all the guys. You guys haven’t — since you guys started tournament play, you guys haven’t made more than ten three-pointers in a game yet, and that was really a big part of a lot of you guys’ biggest wins this season. Is that a hidden element that you think is ready to burst out? How do you see that factoring in the way that you guys have won so far?
Burton: Yeah, I mean, for us we feel like we haven’t even played our best basketball yet, and that’s a big component of the way we’ve been playing all season is being able to be dominant from the three-point line. You know, we got some marksmen that haven’t got it going yet, but we look forward to those three balls going down in the near future.
Sibande: I think it just shows our versatility. We’re a very versatile group. Like he said, we have some marksmen that haven’t been able to get hot yet, but it shows we can still get wins and still fight without making those shots and without making ten-plus, 12 threes a game. It just shows our versatility.
Hinson: I think it shows a lot about our versatility as well. Teams are going to play us how they play us. They know the same things you guys know. You know what I mean? They’re going to try their best to stop that, so being able to be versatile and switch it up and still win is what’s big to me.
In that second half Nelly came up and he had the first six points of the second half. He has been hitting a lot of big shots in both these games. How important has been, and what’s his demeanor like on the court in these games?
Burton: I would just say Nelly is a competitor. You know, when he comes into the game aggressive, we feed off his energy. You know, he started off the half last game on a roll, and we definitely fed off that energy and was able to keep it going.
Sibande: I would say the same thing. Man, he is a dog. He is going to come out and fight. He has been here before. He has been in the tournament before. He knows how it feels to make big shots.
He has been doing his thing, and we look forward to continuing to keep it going.
Hinson: Yeah, it’s all about — he’s all about what Pittsburgh represents, man, just real dog, and that’s just — we feed off that. He is one of us, yeah.
As one of the other guys is saying, it’s the first time for a lot of the people around the country seeing teams and really getting a close look at guys. When people see the Diaz Graham brothers, they look and see two seven-foot guys that look exactly the same, same haircut, wiry frames. Can you tell us a little bit about them? Do you guys ever mistake them for each other, or do you guys kind of know right away?
Burton: I would say at first it took us some time to figure out which one was which, but at first it started with, you know, we know one of them is wearing a different pair of shoes.
As we got to know them and be around them more, we’ve been able to pick them apart. Just speak a little bit about them, they’re fearless. You can kind of see that with their play on the floor.
Sibande: Man, yeah. They’re the Twin Towers, man. It definitely was a tough distinction trying to figure them out, you know, early in the season, like figuring them out like what’s the difference between them? They’re fearless. They’re going to fight. We love them. We embrace them, man. Jorge is actually my roommate, so I actually have some close talks and good talks with him and got to actually learn about him more from Spain. He tells me stuff about how he lived over there, how it was. Man, they’re just really good people, and they love to play the game. They love the game, for sure.
Hiinson: I want to point out what J.B. said about them being fearless. They’re clearly talented, but what makes them come in this game and produce is the fearlessness. As much as I would love to take credit for that, we found them like that, so that’s great. I mean, we found a little piece of us all the way in Spain. Really good. A lot of credit to them, but I think there’s a lot more that they got to show y’all.
Speaking of the Diaz Graham twins, Jeff has talked all year long about how you guys have encouraged them, you guys have built them up. What has it been like? Talk about the pride you guys feel when you see a game like yesterday in which Guillermo goes off, Jorge gets him a great pass for a dunk? How are you feeling when you see that on the court?
Burton: I mean, for me it just brings so much joy to my face because I see them each and every day in the gym putting in the work. When you see hard work pays off, it just brings a level of excitement for me and the group.
Sibande: Yeah, I agree, man. They work their tails off. You know, they stay in the gym. I think any time — you know, they have a connectivity with each other and with our group, man. They just play so fearless. Man, it’s amazing having them playing with us. You know, we put the battery in their backs too. When they put their heads down, when they — you know, sometimes they put their heads down, we pick them up. Like, Come on. Let’s go, man. You got it. They’re really good players and very talented, and I think they have a lot to show as well.
Hinson: Just like J.B. said again, it really makes you smile and appreciate what hard work does because they’re really basketball guys. Like, you know, freshmen in college you would expect partying and all that, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t heard one of those stories from them all year. The only thing I know about them is they’re always in the gym, and I know they can play with each other with their eyes on a blindfold. They’re really good. They’re really all about basketball, and that type of stuff shows when they get the opportunity.
Obviously having Federiko back yesterday it seemed like it helped to take some of the stress off of Guillermo, for as good as he has been playing? Just as a team, what does it mean to have him back, and what sort of spark does he provide to the line-up?
Burton: Yeah, I mean, it means a lot. We wouldn’t be here without Federiko Federiko. He has been our anchor all year. For us to just — it brings a level of joy to see him back there on the floor with us. You know, he does so many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Just having him out there again yesterday was big.
Sibande: Man, I agree, man. Fede, he is a force. Obviously everybody knows he has been dealing with an injury, so, you know, to get him back on the floor, man, it shows a testament to his character and who he is as a person, man. He persevered through that and was able to come out and impact the game at a very high level. Like Jamarius said, we wouldn’t be here without Fede. He has been great for us all year for sure.
Hinson: I’m going to be the third person to say it: We wouldn’t be here without Federiko. And just like Nike said, it really shows his character to want to still go out here and play. I mean, he has done amazing things this year. He can really just sit down and be like, I did it, you know what I mean? Even in practice, we’re like, Fede, you can sit down. He is like, No, I want to do it. It’s like, No, you need to sit down. He wants to play in practice, games. He wants to do walk-throughs. He still wants to do everything. We’re trying to protect him from himself. Like, he really, really, really wants to be out there with us, and we see it. What the fans did for him was really appropriate.
I noticed last night in Nelly’s postgame interview he used the phrase “humble and hungry.” Then I saw in the locker room last night it was written on the whiteboard, “humble and hungry, 1-0.” Has that been a mantra for you guys, and when did you adopt it?
Burton: We had that mantra all year. Coach makes sure we stay even-keel even when we have success, and that’s where the humble and hungry comes from.
Sibande: That’s definitely something we preached on all year. Coach stayed in our ear about staying, like he said, even-keel through all the highs and lows that we went through all season. You know, keeping our eyes on the prize and just really staying in the moment. Man, staying and locking in and taking that next step. He always talks about, you know, just taking the next necessary step, not thinking too far ahead or thinking, you know, two games ahead. Man, we just trying to attack the day and attack the next game for sure.
Hinson: Humble and hungry, it’s just like we said, it’s what we want to stay on, but 1-0 is what I want to speak on. We’re always trying to be 1-0 every day. I mean, of course on game day, but, like, 1-0 even today in practice we’re trying to win that day. Then when we get to the game we’re trying to be 1-0. We’re not thinking about anything else forward. We’re thinking about the next step in front of us.
Blake, Xavier’s head Coach and Pitt alum Sean Miller called you an X factor for this team. Do you feel like you’re an X factor for the team? What does that mean when you hear an opposing coach — he talked about the importance of making sure you are a big part of their game plan.
Hinson: I’m a piece of the puzzle. That’s all I can say. You can call it whatever type of factor, S, X, L factor, whatever you want to call it. I mean, I appreciate the compliment, though. I’m just a piece of the puzzle, man. I work well with these guys. I’ve been on three different teams. I’ve never been called the X factor. You know what I mean? I work well with these guys. That’s what I would call it.
I wanted to ask you guys about the more off-court relationships you guys have with this team. You see warming up, Blake, you and KJ with your little football move and then your run off the court with a lot of joy. Seeing you guys in the locker room, it’s very clear this group likes being around each other. Talk about how that was cultivated this year and what that means to you guys as you progress through this tournament.
Hinson: I don’t know. I mean, that’s the special part about it. Just like I said, I really think Jorge and Guillermo are a lot like us, and they’re from the other side of the planet. Like, he is from Indy. I’m cool with him. We ain’t never got — we sit right next to him in the locker room, and we ain’t never have no problems. J.B., he is probably the only Southern dude on the team besides me. The whole locker room just gels. I don’t know what that is. I think that’s just God’s plan.
Sibande: I’ll give credit to the coaches, man. They did a great job putting this group together, and it’s just crazy, man. Like he said, you know, we really — it’s really like natural for us, man. We really never had no problems as a unit. We all gel together. We’re close. We all really like each other, man, and we stick together. You know, we fight together, and we’re locked in for sure.
Burton: For me I would just say that this group does a great job with communicating with one another, you know, through the ups and downs. We’re always not afraid to have those tough conversations, those tough team meetings and really, you know, laying our hearts on the table for one another. I think that’s been key for us staying together all season long.
Nike, this is for you. I was just talking to Greg in the locker room. He said he called the Fairleigh Dickinson upset over Purdue. I need to know because he told me to specifically ask you. I need to know if it’s true, number one; number two, if he called it before the game started? And then in a general sense, how much have you guys been able to watch the rest of the tournament that’s going on?
Sibande: Yeah, yeah, Greg actually did call that out. He did. We both did. We thought — we knew it was going to be a good game. We knew — because we played Fairleigh Dickinson.
We know they’ve got really good guards, and they make like a good five-out offense. We knew it was going to be an interesting game with Purdue’s big men that they have. So, yeah, he did call it out, man. It’s crazy that — that was a huge upset, man. That was a crazy game. As far as the rest of the tournament, man, I think it’s exciting. It just shows, you know, a lot of great teams in this conference, you know, to make it to continue to play in March, man, it just shows that all these teams are good, you know.
I noticed whenever he was asking that question, Blake, you rolled your eyes about Greg’s prediction. Do you have any rebuttal on that?
Hinson: I don’t. I mean, to be totally honest with you, I remember playing them. I remember being challenged for sure. I wasn’t there when he predicted this. I figured I would be around when that happened, so I guess I wasn’t. But, no, I will end on this statement. If I was to see the video of the coach saying I want Purdue to see this, I didn’t see that video before the game. If I was to see that, I probably would have predicted it too because that’s a lot of confidence. You know, shout out to them. Both programs. That was a great game, and that was a great win.
Coach, I wanted to ask about Nelly Cummings and that sequence after halftime where he comes up with two big buckets. I think he had 11 of his 13 points in the second half. What’s his demeanor been like in these two tournament games?
Capel: Well, Nelly is very competent. He probably has the most experience in the NCAA Tournament of anyone on our team, and he has always played well in the tournament. If you look back at his time at Colgate in the games that they played in the NCAA Tournament, he played very well. Nelly is a really confident young man. We have a lot of confidence in him. We know that he can go on some spurts where he can put the ball in the basket. He has done that all year, and we have a lot of confidence in him to do that.
You obviously played FDU in the upset. Purdue last night. That’s now two 16 seeds in five tournaments that have won, and previously it hadn’t happened before. Three straight tournaments we’ve seen a 15 seed beat a 2. Do you have a theory on why we’re seeing more upsets by some of these lower seeds in recent years?
Capel: I just think there’s more parity in college basketball. I think you’re going to continue to see that with guys transferring, with these teams being older and just — I think the parity in college basketball is so much greater than it was maybe ten years ago.
Jeff, you guys have been a team that’s been able to morph the way you play to your opponents, and you kind of did that with the last two teams, but this Xavier team is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. What are the challenges you guys have to lock in on to be ready for them?
Capel:: This is a completely different style than we’ve played the last two games. Both teams we’ve played — Mississippi State and Iowa State — have been very, very good defensively and not as good offensively.
This is a different level. Xavier is good defensively, but they’re really good offensively. So our mindset has to change. Our game plan will change. We have to be able to go out and execute it against a really, really talented team.
Jeff, with the way Guillermo has played throughout this week, Mississippi State and Iowa State, does that make things at least a little bit more challenging in terms of Federiko’s knee injury and him coming back from that and divvying up minutes and even so far as deciding who starts between the two?
Capel: I don’t think it makes a challenge. Not at all. One of the great things before our group and especially those two guys is that they’re each other’s biggest cheerleader. I don’t think it’s a challenge or an issue at all.
Q. Jeff, you talked about how Xavier has a lot of defensive ability, but perhaps even more on offense. Obviously that’s going to impact you on the defensive end. Does that impact how your team looks at offense as well in a tournament where you have scored less than your season average the first two games?
Capel: Yeah. Well, the first two teams we’ve played, they’ve been really, really physical defensively, and their ball screen coverages have been very, very aggressive.
In watching tape of Xavier, they’re really good defensively, but it’s very different. They haven’t played with the same physicality, at least I haven’t seen on tape. They may do that tomorrow. They’re very physical, but it’s different. Their ball screen coverage is very different. You know, I think they’re at their best, Xavier, when they’re forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. They are a dynamic transition offensive team, whether you scored off of missed shots and especially off of turnovers, so it’s going to be imperative for us to really value the basketball and make sure we’re getting quality shots every time.
Jeff, can you talk a little about the process of recruiting the twins from the outset, and when did you first start to be able to tell them apart?
Capel:: The process of recruiting them, that really started with Tim O’Toole going down to IMG. We heard about them. He went down there and saw them, thought they were good enough. So that really started the process of our recruitment. That probably happened in the fall or early winter of last year.
And that started the communication with them. They came on their official visit after the season was over with. And I’ll be honest with you, probably in all of my years of being involved in this as a head coach or an assistant coach, it’s right up there with the greatest official visit I’ve ever been a part of. It was the twins, their family, their mom and dad, and their spouses. The mom and dad are not together, but, man, they’re, like, spouses — their new spouses are best friends. It was unbelievable. It was really great. Just the energy was so positive.
When they came here, they went — once they left our place, they actually went to separate places to go visit some other schools separately. I think we were one of the few schools that was recruiting them together. Then, fortunately, we were able to get them. But that’s what started the process. To be honest with you, I can’t tell them apart. Here’s the way I can tell them apart. In practice one of them wears yellow shoes, one of them wears white. Off the court Guillermo has an earring, Jorge doesn’t. That’s the only way I can tell them apart.
I don’t know if I can follow that up with any question that will make this work, but I’ll try. Jeff, Coach Miller, obviously, former Pitt player, spent really good seasons playing for tournament teams in the late ’80s, early ’90s at Pitt. Just curious what the relationship is between you and him. When you look back at those ’80s and ’90s teams, what stands out to you about Coach Miller as a player when you saw him play at Pitt?
Capel: I remember Sean as player when he played at Pitt. I remember, if I’m not mistaken, and some of you from around Pittsburgh probably know this better than me, I think Sean was, like, on — as a young kid, on high school dribbling and ball handling and things like that. Obviously, he comes from an outstanding basketball family with his father being a great coach in the Pittsburgh area. It was a big deal when Sean went to Pitt. He was a four-year starter. Really, really good player. Got the assist on the most famous play ever at University of Pittsburgh and one of the greatest plays ever in college basketball history. He is a Pitt man. He has been an outstanding coach. I remember him as an assistant coach at NC State when I played for Herb Sendek. You knew then, just watching him on the sideline, watching the passion and the fiery demeanor that he had, you knew that he was destined to be a really good coach. And he has done that at every place that he has been. He has been an outstanding coach.
Coach, I’m just curious a little bit on the preparation that goes into March Madness games, specifically, because there’s so little time in between games. How do you sort of expedite the process of preparing for a team, and are there any other teams that you can use that you have played this year that would sort of compare similarly to the way that Xavier does?
Capel: Well, how we go about the process is, you know, when we played yesterday, before our game, Xavier and Kennesaw State played. We already divided that up where two assistants are there live-scouting the game. One of them has already been watching Xavier. The other one has already been watching Kennesaw. So whoever wins, we already have a good feel. They already have a good feel. I didn’t watch any. I watched some of the game sitting back there waiting for our game.
Then last night, once we won, then we immediately started the preparation. We get back, as a staff, we get together and start talking about Xavier. We start watching. There’s a preview all ready for me where I can get a feel for them, where they’ve cut up and edited some tapes, what they like to do offensively, what they like to do defensively, what are their strengths, what are some areas perhaps we could attack or we should try to attack.
I spent a lot of time last night, early morning watching them, watching games, you know, making my notes, which I always do. Watched them again this morning. We met last night as a team. We gave them a preview of them. We met this morning. We went over scouting, went over personnel. We’ll go out here and practice for a little bit. We’ll get together again tonight to try to finalize our game plan since we’re at noon tomorrow.
It will be an early morning. We’ll get up. We’ll walk through some stuff in the morning and then get over here and play. Look, I don’t like to compare, man. I heard so much, before we played Iowa State, that we were like Baylor. I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to compare other teams to other teams or someone we played. Xavier is Xavier. They are really good. They’ve had an outstanding season, and they’ve earned the right to be in this position, to be a 3 seed. They’re a really good basketball team, and it’s going to be a big-time challenge for us.
I asked the players a little bit ago about the off-the-court connection this team shares. I believe it was Blake that credited the coaching staff with cultivating a lot of that closeness. How can you — what can you tell us about the way this team has gelled, especially considering a lot of these guys are new to each other at the start of the year?
Capel: Well, I think the main thing is that it happened organically. I don’t know what we did as a coaching staff different from what we’ve done or attempted to do in previous years, and that’s just being completely honest. We have some guys that are a little bit older that are over themselves. Our guys have egos, but they don’t have ego problems. They believe in who they are. I think the pieces just fit, and I think it all happened organically. I think once we got everyone together, they started to see how the pieces fit and the relationships just happened. We talked about the same things we’ve talked about from the first day I took over the job, is be a really good teammate, care about someone other than yourself, appreciate what we have. All of those things, it’s really resounded with these guys. I think it’s because the maturity that we have and because the pieces just fit.
Especially since your alma mater is about to tip in the next few minutes, I’m just curious, how much of the tournament, when you are coaching in it, do you get to see on practice days or even on game days as things are going on? And related to Duke, haven’t had a chance to catch you since John won last week in Greensboro. How satisfying is it to see Coach step away and somebody win an ACC Championship and also win an NCAA Tournament game a couple of days ago?
Capel: Well, as far as watching the games, I mean, I’ll watch bits and pieces. You know, I’ll normally have it on as I’m watching tape and normally when I’m watching film of our opponent, I normally have the volume down on that, and I’ll have the game on in the background. If it sounds like it’s getting exciting, I’ll take a peek. Last night I watched the Fairleigh Dickinson as that happened against Purdue. I watched some of that, especially down the stretch. I actually shut my computer down, just closed it just to watch some of that. But my focus is on our team. That’s it. I’m trying to help our guys put us in the best position for us to have success. As far as Duke, look, I’m happy for them. They’re running their own race. John has done an incredible job this year. I wish them luck.
Jeff, I saw — I heard Nelly last night in his postgame interview mention the phrase “humble and hungry.” And then I saw it on the whiteboard in the locker room, it said “humble and hungry, 1-0.” I asked the team about it today, and they all credited you with having that mantra and keeping them even-keeled. How important do you think it’s been to just have that steady state through the highs and the lows of the season?
Capel:: I think it’s really, really important. I think that is an area where perhaps I’ve grown as a coach, and I’ve gotten maybe a little bit better with that. I remember my dad used to always say the highs can’t be — the highs can’t be too high, the lows are never as low as you think they are. It’s somewhere right in the middle. As I’ve gotten older, I think I understand that a little bit better. Our guys have done an incredible job of that. The leadership on our team has done an incredible job of that. We’ll be in time-outs and things will be hectic and I hear them saying, “Let’s get back to neutral, let’s get back to neutral.” The theme we’ve had all year is just to be 1-0. Not to look ahead. Not look behind us. Concentrate on the next step, what’s right in front of us. And the guys have done a pretty good job of that.
Jeff, Jamarius just was telling us that he feels you haven’t played your best game yet, but, you know, both Blake, him, and Nike all said versatility is important in being able it change your style of play. But they talked about not — they haven’t had the game where they’ve shot the lights out from three-pointers the way you have in your best wins. How do you guys key in an opportunity? What does it say about you guys that you have won without that so far?
Capel:: Yeah, well, I think it shows the resiliency and the toughness of our team. I was asked a question at halftime of the Mississippi State game. We made eight threes in the first half, and how do you win if you don’t make threes in the second half? My answer was, I don’t want to think about it. Hopefully we make — but we didn’t. We made one. We were still able to find a way to win. I think our league helped prepare us for that. Again, playing against all the different styles that we faced. I think it helped us for that. And just going through a season when you are resilient, you’re tough, you’re together, you are able to adapt and figure out different ways, and this team has been able to do that all year.
Jeff, you have at times called Nike a sixth starter. Obviously, he has won the Sixth Man of the Year Award for the ACC, but how do you see his game evolving not just from the standpoint of being able to come off the bench and provide instant offense, but for being more of a complete basketball player throughout the stretch run?
Capel:: I think he has probably done an even better job defensively. I think he rebounds well. He is able to attack. Obviously, his scoring. I just think his game has become more well-rounded throughout the years. He has been there with us. I think he understands the impact he can have besides just scoring. That’s growth. That’s growth as player. That’s accepting your role. That’s accepting and just learning about the game. Just learning about the game of basketball. So many young people think you have to have the ball in order to be able to have impact. The reality is in a 40-minute game even the best player probably doesn’t have — if you think about how much time you have the basketball in your hand, it’s not that much. But there are so many different ways you can impact the game. If you cut hard, that can impact the game. If you screen hard, if you talk, if you don’t get screened, if you help. I mean, just all these different things, and I think over time Nike has understood and learned those different facets about the game.
Jeff, I know you talked about the preparation process especially for Xavier. Greg is a guy who has played Xavier a lot. How much did he contribute or how much did he offer as far as what you guys have been talking about since your win, and what is he like in how he embraces your scouting reports and helps you guys prepare?
Capel:: Well, Greg is mature. He has been around, so he is able, like Nelly, like J.B., those guys understand the importance of scouting, personnel, and things like that. It’s different. He has played Xavier, but he hasn’t played Sean Miller’s Xavier. It’s different. I think their style of play, the thing that they do are very different from the previous coaching staff that Greg played against.
The fan support in Dayton was tremendous. You talked about that after, but the fans were able to travel again for yesterday’s game, and they’ll certainly be here again tomorrow. What was that like having that kind of support in an arena that you are all so familiar with playing in?
Capel: It was awesome. It really was. Our fans have been outstanding all season long. Especially, you know, after Christmas once we got back, once the students got back. I think there is — I think there has been an unbelievable connection all year with this team and the fans, the students and the city of Pittsburgh. I think there’s been a great connection. It’s been really cool to see. We are grateful for it. We’re going to need them tomorrow, and hopefully they show out in droves.
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