Analyzing Potential Postseason Opponents for Pittsburgh Basketball
The Pittsburgh Panthers (24-8, 11-7 ACC) wound down the 2013-14 regular season in a position that is rare for Jamie Dixon's teams: on the bubble. But they weren't just underwhelming at times in their first year of ACC play; they were also arguably unfortunate (Tyler Ennis, anyone?).
Fate couldn't have picked a better time to change their luck; a maybe-it-did-maybe-it-didn't buzzer-beating jumper by Josh Newkirk was parlayed into a critical overtime win at Clemson last Saturday.
Then on Wednesday, Wake Forest defeated Notre Dame in the ACC tournament lid-lifter for both teams, helping Pitt avoid one of the worst possible matchups it could have encountered. The Panthers, as they did at The Pete on Jan. 11, manhandled the Demon Deacons Thursday in their ACC tournament debut.
This gives them a chance at revenge against No. 15 North Carolina at 2:00 p.m. ET on Friday on ESPN2 in the ACC quarterfinals at the Greensboro Coliseum. In the midst of a remarkable hot streak, the Heels edged Pitt Feb. 15 in Chapel Hill, but the Panthers should be a loose and confident bunch after improving their NCAA tournament stead.
Here's a look at a few teams Pitt might see soon if it can upset UNC and finally collect its first signature victory as a member of the ACC.
No. 6 Virginia (25-6)
Who's going to stop the Hoos, we all wondered? Well, Maryland did, but its euphoria was short-lived, thanks to the efforts of Florida State on Thursday.
Before the Terps knocked off UVA, Pitt came painfully close to beating the eventual ACC regular-season champs back on Feb. 2. In the 48-45 struggle, ACC coach of the year Tony Bennett bled just enough offense from his team to win.
You could say that game proved the Panthers, even when they aren't at their best, are still capable of hanging with the top teams in the conference. You could also call the game a maddening microcosm of Pitt's season.
The Panthers went nearly the last seven minutes without a field goal and conceded an NBA three-pointer to NBA prospect Malcolm Brogdon, who led Virginia with 16 points, with 0.4 seconds to spare.
Virginia entered the ACC tournament allowing 55.4 points per game to lead the nation in scoring defense. Having said that, it's hard to imagine the Panthers faring as poorly on the offensive end as they did in the initial meeting, when they shot 32 percent from the field and 58 percent at the line.
Furthermore, outside of Brodgon and fellow guard Joe Harris, UVA can't score. It finished 12th in the 15-team ACC with 66.3 points per game. This team is no fluke, but if the Panthers can play an adequate offensive game while sticking to their defensive guns, this matchup has upset potential.
Florida State (19-12)
Basketball is the one mainstream sport that Jameis Winston doesn't play, and Pitt still couldn't beat Florida State.
Nevertheless, if the 'Noles upset Virginia Friday afternoon, that—assuming a Panthers upset of UNC—would pave a less perilous route for Pitt to the ACC Championship Game.
It's possible FSU's record is deceptive. Prior to conference play, Florida State's resume read well, and it did just win a conference tournament game. It's equally possible the Seminoles, on senior day at the Petersen Events Center, caught Pitt napping—nothing more, nothing less.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: FSU got a two-possession lead in that Feb. 23 game and then went seven-and-a-half minutes without a bucket.
During those doldrums, the Panthers made a ripping...two.
Chances are the 'Noles will have to catch Virginia napping as well. If they do, the matchup-within-the-matchup to keep an eye on would be Pitt senior forward Lamar Patterson versus Florida State senior forward Okaro White.
Patterson, a recent All-ACC second-team selection, chipped in 22 points and eight boards in that 71-66 loss to the Seminoles, but White matched him. Plus, the FSU senior, who has attracted some attention from NBA scouts, was great in that game when his team needed him to be, while Patterson was an inefficient 8-of-21 from the field.
Once again, if Pitt were to simply play an average offensive game, it would stand a great chance to advance.
No. 11 Syracuse (27-4)
As I hinted earlier, Notre Dame, for some reason, always seems to be a bad matchup for Pitt. Likewise, the Panthers always seem to be a bad matchup for the Orange, even though this year's regular-season results don't do that statement enough justice.
If Pitt upsets the Heels on Friday, the potential would exist for an ACC championship contest between these former Big East rivals. Of course, Syracuse, to fulfill its end of that bargain, would have to hold serve against N.C. State and then—probably—beat Duke, which is no small task.
A Pitt-'Cuse "three-match" in Greensboro could be an abject lesson in just how meaningless rankings can be in college basketball, especially late in the season.
When the Panthers visited the Carrier Dome Jan. 18, they left too many points on the floor in the first half but still erased a double-digit Syracuse lead in the second half, only to see the Orange hang on after a couple of shots late in regulation didn't fall Pitt's way.
And then there's the matter of the Feb. 12 rematch.
There isn't much more I can say without giving Pitt fans indigestion, so I'll just say a freshman hit a shot that I could practice a hundred times in a row in the high school gym of my choice and still not make. I'll leave it at that.
In their hearts, the Panthers know they can beat this team, and as the slightly slumping Orange have been reminded over the past few weeks, a team's luck can change at any time.
How does Pitt do that?
By attacking that 2-3 zone fearlessly, just as it has before.
By taking care of the ball against Tyler Ennis, the ACC leader in assists and steals per game, and not letting him find C.J. Fair (16.9 points per game) to the point where the latter completely takes over.
By getting second-chance points.
By staying the course.
And by having someone on Ennis (12.4 points per game) like stink on sewage.
North Carolina State (19-12)
If you don't believe one premier player can carry a middling team, you didn't see what happened when North Carolina State came to Pittsburgh for the Panthers' last home game of the season.
Conference MVP T.J. Warren set a Petersen Events Center visitor record with 41 points in what became one of N.C. State's best, if not one of its most unlikely, wins of the season. An earlier 74-62 loss to Pitt where the Panthers, like the Wolfpack, rallied furiously after a nightmarish first half, was avenged.
The Pack are hungry. Winning the ACC tournament is, in all probability, their only ticket to the Big Dance. And the last time they met Syracuse, their Friday night foe, the Orange were given all they could handle in their one-point win Feb. 15, so they can't afford to sleep on State.
On paper, this looks simple. Suffocate Warren (24.8 points per game) with multiple defenders as often as you can and make the rest of that lineup beat you. For some reason, though, "simple" wasn't in the vocabulary of the Panthers on Mar. 3; they didn't double-team the N.C. State sharpshooter until it was too late.
It's also worth nothing another dubious record was reached in that game: Pitt collected only two offensive rebounds all night. Commit that to memory, because you'll never see it again under Jamie Dixon's watch.
On Thursday, Pitt had no such problems off the glass at either end. If it plays its game, bet on the Panthers in the admittedly unlikely event these teams meet again.
No. 21 Connecticut (24-7)
I'm sure many Pitt fans have been waiting for the ever-changing minds of ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports' Jerry Palm, two of the most renowned bracketologists in the land, to be made up.
Lunardi, in his most recent mock bracket, has the Panthers going to the West Region as a No. 10 seed and meeting No. 7 seed Gonzaga in Milwaukee.
Palm, in his most recent mock bracket, also pegs Pitt as a No. 10 seed but in the South Region instead and taking on VCU. I wonder how former Cal U assistant coach Shaka Smart would feel about getting another taste of western Pennsylvania basketball?
Meanwhile, I encourage you to check out the real-time prognostications of Bleacher Report columnist Kerry Miller, who, like Lunardi, has Pitt in the West Region but as a No. 9 seed. The matchup that Miller projects—against No. 8 seed Kentucky—is fascinating on multiple levels.
But an outside-the-box prediction from another bracket analyst is the one that jumped out at me the most.
SB Nation college basketball editor Chris Dobbertean projects Pitt as a No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region and starting its journey in Milwaukee against UConn.
Remember Khalid El-Amin? How about Caron Butler playing hero or Brandon Knight's reckoning?
Remember DeJuan Blair and Hasheem Thabeet beating the tar out of each other for one loose ball after another? Remember Sam Young blowing the roof off The Pete? Remember Kemba Walker?
Yep, I do too.
In the immortal words of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, those were the days.
When last Pitt left the Huskies, they were mourning a 69-61 loss to the Panthers Jan. 19, 2013 in Pittsburgh. A previously banged-up Shabazz Napier had managed just eight points on 2-of-7 shooting from the field in 34 minutes.
Napier, a senior guard and the American Athletic Conference player of the year, entered the postseason as the first player in UConn history to lead the team in points (17.8), rebounds (6.0) and assists (5.2) per game in the same season.
Save for freshman Josh Newkirk, who is showing signs of maturity (10 points, five assists and no turnovers Thursday) off the bench, Pitt doesn't have that kind of steady firepower in its backcourt. Therefore, its perimeter defense—which has been suspect at times—would have to greatly offset that weakness, if this delightful little piece of Big East nostalgia comes to pass.
Perhaps the Panthers, who have won four of their last five, are just now mastering the art of stepping away from the ledge. Historically, Jamie Dixon's teams are adept at that.
Pitt is capable of playing with any of these teams. As we've found out over the long haul, it is also capable of losing to any of them as well.
If it still can't get past North Carolina, none of that will matter. But it's true that one game can change the course of an entire season, and a win Friday would probably allay any and all fears about Pitt's postseason fate.
If this stat from Andrew Fillipponi, a midday host at Pitt flagship station 93.7 The Fan (KDKA-FM), holds true, then not getting past the Heels shouldn't matter either:
No team with 24 wins from ACC has ever been left out of the NCAA tournament.— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) March 13, 2014
Nevertheless, a successful effort against a ranked opponent in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, to say nothing of the tournament's later rounds, would put Dixon's program back on the national radar for the right reasons.