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Opinion

6 WINS, 6 LOSSES, 6 GAMES TO GO

The Pitt Panther basketball team finds themselves in a precarious position as they enter the final few weeks of the regular season.  The team started the year winning 14 of their first 15 games, with the lone loss coming to a ranked Purdue teams.  They also collected 3 ACC wins in those 14 games, beating Syracuse and Georgia Tech at home, while also going on the road and beating Notre Dame.  Since that point, Pitt has gone 3-6, including their current 3-game losing streak.  In those 9 games, they have a nice road win at Florida State, with the other two wins being home blowouts over last place Boston College and an improved, but still low level Virginia Tech team.  The six losses include five by 13 points or more.  Pitt has also not scored more than 64 points in any of these losses, while being outscored by an average of 15 points.

The Panthers are currently 17-7 overall, but due to a weak non-conference schedule, thanks in part to the cancellation of the Gonzaga game after 20 minutes of play, Pitt needs to finish strong to assure themselves a spot at the Big Boys Table this March.

With a 6-6 ACC record the Panthers are two-thirds of the way through their conference schedule.  With 6 more games to play, Pitt has an opportunity to dictate which tournament they will be playing in this time next month.  Luckily for Pitt, the ACC is as deep as any conference in the nation, so getting “resume wins” is still very possible, but the Panthers still have some stumbling blocks to avoid as well.

At this point in the season, the bracket experts all have the Panthers making the NCAA Tournament.   Although as you can see by the list below, the most recent bracket forecasts greatly vary in their belief of how secure the Panthers are in these brackets.

ESPN (Feb 15th) – 11-seed (last 4 with byes)
CBS (Feb 15th) – 8-seed
USA Today (Feb 15th) – 9-seed
SB Nation (Feb 12th) – 8-seed
KenPom (Feb 10th) – 12-seed (in play-in game)

Here is the remaining schedule for Pitt:
2-16 vs Wake Forest
2-20 @ Syracuse
2-24 vs Louisville
2-28 vs Duke
3-2 @ Virginia Tech
3-5 @ Georgia Tech

One would think if Pitt can go 3-3 in their final six games, avoiding a bad loss along the way and finish the conference with a .500 record, they should be in at least a decent position going into the ACC Tournament.  Pitt would probably need to win at least once in D.C. in order to avoid a bad loss, then they get a chance to get that resume win, like they did in 2014 when they beat UNC, getting to the tournament semifinals.  However, upon further review, that might not be enough.  Consider this, in the last 5 seasons, no ACC team has made the NCAA Tournament with a .500 conference record.  And furthermore, each of those 5 seasons an ACC team with a winning conference record has been left out of the tournament, including twice when an 11-7 team was sent to the NIT.  So maybe the Panthers aren’t as solid as some believe.

Let’s look at each of the final six games a little closer.

* 2-16 vs Wake Forest –
This is a MUST win game for Pitt.  Despite WF having a couple of nice non-conference wins (Indiana, LSU, UCLA) they have won just once in the ACC this season and a home loss to them would kill almost any chance of Pitt making the NCAA Tournament.

* 2-20 @ Syracuse –
Pitt beat Syracuse at The Pete to open the ACC season.  Despite the score showing an 11-point Pitt win, it was much closer than that.  Syracuse held a 1-point lead with under 4 minutes to play and Pitt closed the game on a 14-2 run.  That game was also when Jim Boeheim was serving his 9-game suspension.  Say what you want about how much coaches impact a game, but I have to believe that a Hall of Fame coach on your bench makes a difference in close games.  Jamie Dixon and the Panthers have had great success against the Orange and at the Carrier Dome (13-6 all-time, 6-3 in the Dome).  However, Syracuse is playing much better as of late, winning 8 of their last 9 since their 0-4 ACC start.  I don’t think it will be easy, but I think this is a game the Panthers can win.  If they do it will go a long way to cementing their spot in the Big Dance.

* 2-24 vs Louisville –
Louisville dominated the Panthers in every facet of the game the 1st time these two teams met this season, in a 59-41 loss for Pitt.  It was the lowest point total for the Panthers since a 62-39 loss at Rutgers in 2012.  Pitt shot just 29% for the game and turned the ball over 19 times.  One would think Pitt can’t possibly play that poorly again, especially at home, but it’s not like Louisville played great in that game.  Louisville had 17 turnovers themselves and shot just 9% (1-11) from 3-point range against Pitt.  Louisville has lost two in a row and may not be playing with as much edge after their self-imposed postseason ban for this season.  I think this is a winnable game for Pitt, but I don’t see it being very likely.

* 2-28 vs Duke –
Duke is an awful match-up for Pitt.  Yes, Pitt will have the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd, but after that, pretty much every other factor goes in Duke’s favor.  Duke struggled earlier in the year as their new crop of young talent got used to playing together, but their back-to-back wins over ranked teams shows that Mike Krzyzewski has his team headed in the right direction as he tends to do this time of year.  I won’t say that Pitt can’t win this game, but I just don’t see it happening the way both teams are currently playing.

* 3-2 @ Virginia Tech –
Pitt is a better team than Virginia Tech, as shown by their convincing 19-point win a few weeks back.  Pitt should win this game.  Key word “should.”  Virginia Tech plays much better on their home court, so this game won’t be a walk in the park for the Panthers, but that being said, much like the Wake Forest game, Pitt can’t afford to lose to the Hokies in March.  Especially if they don’t pick up a win against any of the previous three opponents.

* 3-5 @ Georgia Tech –
SEE VIRGINIA TECH
Pitt struggled to put away a pesky Yellow Jacket team in January at home, but like with Virginia Tech, the Panthers are the better team in this match-up.  This is just the 2nd time Pitt will face Georgia Tech in Atlanta since joining the ACC.  The Panthers lost their 1st meeting 70-65 last year.

After this breakdown, it looks like Pitt needs to finish the regular season at worst 3-3 to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament and even that might not be enough.  4-2 would certainly have them sitting in a good position, as long as they could avoid a bad loss in the ACC Tournament.  The unfortunate part is that 4-2 in that span might be the best they can do.  The way this team is playing right now, winning 5 out of their final 6 seems unlikely and that means they have no room for error.

The Panthers have been playing this season since November.  Their first 24 games are in the books, but their final 6 will tell the story.

(Header image by Crazypaco – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5442383)

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