On Tuesday night, Pitt (8-3, 4-2 ACC) will be back at home to take on North Carolina (10-5,5-3 ACC) in a crucial conference matchup at Petersen Events Center.
Here are five things to know before Tuesday night’s 7 p.m. tipoff on ACC Network.
NEED MORE JUSTIN CHAMPAGNIE DOWN THE STRETCH
At halftime in Winston-Salem, Pitt went into the locker room with a seven-point lead, behind 12 points and four rebounds from Justin Champagnie. It appeared as though Pitt’s star, who has since won his second straight ACC Player of the Week award, would continue his usual dominance in the second half. However, Wake Forest, and maybe even Pitt, had other plans.
Champagnie was held scoreless for the first 13 minutes of the second half, and only scored four more points throughout the game. As Pitt fans have come to know to be more true as the season continues, as Champagnie goes, Pitt goes.
Without Champagnie scoring, Pitt went ice cold and struggled to score, all while Wake Forest stayed scorching hot from 3-point range. In the second half, Pitt shot just 33% from the field as opposed to its 62% mark during the first half.
While all of these stats make it seem like Pitt could not claw its way back in even in the last few minutes, the Panthers still found a way. After going on a 10-1 run to cut the lead to just one, Pitt got an open look for guard Xavier Johnson with a few seconds remaining, but he missed a jumper and time expired, giving the Panthers their third loss of the season.
While it is clear that Pitt is not a one-man show, Champagnie needs to have the ball in his hands on offense in order for this team to close out games. Especially since his 3-point shooting has emerged as a threat in recent games, other teams are going to have to double Champagnie in late-game situations which will lead to easier buckets for the supporting cast.
PITT NEEDS TO REBOUND
Coming into its most recent game against Wake Forest, Pitt was ranked fifth in the entire nation in rebounds per game with an average of 43.1. Wake Forest, who ranked 295th in that same statistic, held the Panthers to just 34 boards, its third-lowest amount of rebounds in a game this season.
The reason this is important for Tuesday’s matchup against North Carolina is the fact that the Tar Heels are leading the entire country in rebounds per game. Roy Williams’ squad has grabbed an average of 43.5 rebounds per game including 44 in its most recent matchup against NC State. While UNC has four players averaging at least five rebounds per game, Pitt has just two.
“For us, you know, we don’t have a lot of front court depth, we’re going to have to have everyone ready,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said on Monday. “Some guys that maybe haven’t played as much this season are going to have to be ready. They’re going to have to be ready to come in and to be physical and to block out. If we can just do those two things, then that helps us. It’s a lot that we have to do, but with their physicality of always going to the offensive glass and that being a major strength of theirs, averaging 16 offensive rebounds a game, it’s a tremendous challenge for us.”
After the loss at Wake Forest, Pitt still ranks as the No. 7 team in the nation in total rebounds per game. If the Panthers want to take down UNC on Tuesday, the rebounding battle will certainly be something to keep an eye on.
THREE-HEADED BEAST FOR THE HEELS
This season, UNC has featured three players averaging over seven rebounds per game, in Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Armando Bacot.
“They’re huge, I mean, they rotate four bigs in,” Capel said about the Tar Heels on Monday. “They have their two guys that they start, or veteran guys, with Armando and Garrison Brooks. Brooks, I think, was the preseason ACC Player of the Year. Then they come in with Sharpe and Kessler, two McDonald’s All-Americans and highly-touted guys. Out of all four I think Sharpe’s probably the most talented. Bacot and Brooks, because of experience, maybe have a little bit of an edge, but they’re all really good and they’re playing a little over 20 minutes a game at most. Bacot’s leading them in scoring at about 24 minutes a game so they play until they’re tired, they come out, and they bring in fresh bodies.”
Brooks, who was indeed the preseason ACC Player of the Year, has seen a decrease in production this season after earning most improved player in the conference last year. In his junior year, he averaged about six minutes, six points, and one rebound more than he is currently averaging in his senior season.
To find out why Brooks’ production has decreased so much this season, Pittsburgh Sports Now caught up with Brendan Marks of The Athletic, who covers the Tar Heels.
“First, his usage is way down,” Marks told PSN. “The only reason it was so high last year anyway was because Cole Anthony went down. If not for that, he doesn’t see the usage he did anyway, but that was a large reason for the breakout junior year. Second, he hasn’t been as good this year, to be honest. He’s been less consistent defensively, settling for more jumpers instead of drawing fouls inside, and just less effective close in.”
In last season’s two matchups against North Carolina, Pitt was dominated on the inside by Brooks as well as Bacot. After averaging 9.6 points and 8.3 rebounds last season, Bacot has increased his scoring average to 12.1 points and has grabbed about the same amount of rebounds, averaging 7.7 this season. Sharpe, a 6-foot-11, 265 pound freshman big, has averaged 9.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in his first season with the Tar Heels.
“Bacot and Sharpe have been damn good, and Roy has to find minutes for them,” Marks added. “There was always going to be a frontcourt jam with those 3 (and Walker Kessler, to a lesser extent), so expecting him [Brooks] to reproduce those numbers was always sort of unrealistic.”
The three bigs will undoubtedly give the Panthers trouble, especially if two or even all three of them share the court at a time. While Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly has played reliable defense as of late, the Panthers, other than senior Terrell Brown, will have trouble matching up, defending, and rebounding against such a tall and strong Tar Heels team.
TOURNAMENT IMPLICATIONS? BOTH TEAMS LOOMING ON THE BUBBLE
Heading into this late-January battle, both Pitt and North Carolina are focused on the next game and only that. However, both teams have been in the conversation recently for a potential NCAA tournament bid down the road.
In Fox Sports’ Mike DeCourcy’s latest bracket prediction, the Panthers were in a play-in game against San Diego St. for a 12 seed. North Carolina, in that same bracket, was listed as a ten seed taking on Purdue.
What do you think of his tournament field? pic.twitter.com/EcurYWEBY1
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 25, 2021
Pitt has not made an NCAA tournament appearance since 2016, when it lost to Wisconsin by a score of 47-43 in the first round. The Panthers were a ten seed in that tournament and with the loss finished the season with a 21-12 record.
North Carolina has not made the tournament since 2019 (obviously no tournament in 2020, but the Tar Heels had a losing record). Had there been a tournament in 2020, it would have been the first year the Tar Heels had not qualified for the big dance since 2010.
This year, both teams are looking to make it back to March, but first, a more important task lies ahead: Tuesday night.
NORTH CAROLINA SLIM FAVORITE, STRUGGLES AGAINST THE SPREAD ON THE ROAD
Against Wake Forest, Pitt was a favorite for just the second time this season in ACC play. After losing outright to the Demon Deacons, Pitt’s record against the spread now sits at 7-4.
The Tar Heels have covered in four of their last five games, including a ten-point victory in their most recent game against NC State in which they were favored by six. That win brought their overall record to 5-8-1 against the spread in the 2020-21 season.
According to popular betting service BetOnline, the line currently sits at North Carolina (-1.5) for Tuesday night’s game in Pittsburgh. On the road, UNC has not covered a single game this season, going 0-5. Pitt, on the other hand, has a 5-2 record against the spread in seven home games this year.
The over/under for this contest is hovering around 144 points. In the loss at Wake Forest, the over cashed for a second straight game for Pitt.