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Pitt’s Path to March Madness is Clear: Win The Games You’re Expected To



Nelly Cummings

Pitt’s brand of basketball isn’t conducive to high NET or KenPom rankings. So, stop worrying about it.

Pitt’s brand of basketball has, however, led to eight Quad 1 and 2 wins, four of each, and a slate of road wins over projected tournament teams in North Carolina, North Carolina State and Northwestern. This is a tournament team.

The only thing that matters now is taking care of what needs to be done. There will be two more cracks at Quad 1 wins (on the road against Virginia Tech and Miami), but Pitt doesn’t need either. It doesn’t need a deep ACC Tournament run either.

Just beat the teams it should beat. That’s easier said than done, but you gotta do it.

By the way, those four Quad 1 wins are more than San Diego State, Duke, Illinois, North Carolina, Auburn, Kentucky, North Carolina State, Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio State and Michigan State — all of which hover around Pitt’s projected line.

At 9-3 in the ACC, with eight conference games left, Pitt is also firmly in the running for either ACC title. However, many analysts still haven’t moved Pitt off the bubble.

Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy has been higher on Pitt than many of his media analyst colleagues, and while he will not be releasing a new bracket until Friday, of course, he’s already considering what to do what Pitt.

“I did have them higher than most other media analysts by a line, so I may have been ahead of myself, so I’m not going to commit to them being higher,” DeCourcy told PSN. “But I will say that adding a fourth Quad 1 win was a huge boost for them when you look at what the other teams that are in the range they’re aspiring to be.”

DeCourcy’s most recent projection featured Pitt as a 10 seed, facing off against No. 7 San Diego State, and he felt like Pitt’s play against the best in the ACC, and especially its play on the road, led to a more secure standing in his projections.

“I think the fact that they were 5-2 on the road prior to last night was big for me,” DeCourcy said. “The fact that they had three Quad 1 wins, which is more than a lot of the teams that are in that range. I think other analysts — I can say this, I think my seedings and projections are gonna track less to predictive metrics than some others.”

The NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) favors winning games by 20, 30 points. Pitt doesn’t do that. In fact, early double-digit losses to WVU and Michigan are part of the reason why NET is so low on the Panthers.

DeCourcy’s bracketology doesn’t place metrics at the forefront of the equation, and he doesn’t use the ‘eye test’ at all, considering it a silly way of evaluating teams, so what does he do? He looks at performance. Quad 1 wins, Quad 2 wins, road performance, performance against the field, etc.

It comes down to understanding what the metrics really are, and how they’re used to evaluate teams on a consistent basis — another way to evaluate how teams will perform against the betting spread, in the end. But it’s certainly not the end all, be all.

“If you win games close, the way Pitt does, then you’re not gonna grade well in those metrics, and that’s fine because they’re designed to measure power, not accomplishments,” DeCourcy said.

The other reason why Pitt lags behind in the NET and KenPom rankings is because of a weird Quad 4 loss to Florida State in January. It was a bad loss, almost inexcusable. It needed an equally impressive win — that DeCourcy sees — to balance it out.

“Losing that Florida State game at home is the kind of miss that could have cost them, but I think they made up for it by going and winning at Carolina,” DeCourcy said. “If you lose a game you’re not supposed to lose, you better win one you’re not supposed to win, and they certainly did that against the Tar Heels.”

Pitt has swept preseason No. 1 North Carolina (43 NET, 34 KenPom) and knocked off Virginia (14 NET, 13 KenPom), Miami (40 NET, 36 KenPom), Northwestern (49 NET, 54 KenPom) and North Carolina State (39 NET, 43 KenPom).

There is a Quad 1 win opportunity on Feb. 18 against Virginia Tech and another on March 4 against Miami, so there’s obviously the chance to add to the resume, but that’s not the most important task anymore. It’s about winning games you’re supposed to.

“If you win more games like Carolina, you are in the hunt for an ACC championship, you get a good seed in the ACC Tournament because it’s not a committee selecting it, it’s based on your record, and then you go from there,” DeCourcy said.

“I think if Pitt continues to play as it has, especially most recently, beating Miami at home and showing the toughness to beat Carolina on the road, I think it’ll be fine. The predictive metrics will probably always hold it back by a seed line or two.”

Pitt finds a way to win. There’s nothing to suggest that big, double-digit wins will begin to pop up, but those double-digit wins aren’t needed either. Just keep winning, keep finishing at the end of games.

Pitt’s NET and KenPom rankings mean almost nothing at this point. Pitt isn’t going to suddenly start climbing. At this point in the season, the only way from here is down. But that’s only if Pitt starts to lose games it shouldn’t.

“The first thing you want to do as Pitt is win the games you’re supposed to win,” DeCourcy said. “That’s your No. 1 objective at this point. Would it help to get another Quad 1 win or two? Of course, those things are gold. But the No. 1 assignment is — you already dropped one of those (Quad 4 losses), you can’t do one or two more.”

When it comes to matchups against Louisville, Florida State, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Notre Dame the rest of the way, losses will not be tolerated. Pitt has to handle its business in the games it’s supposed to win. End of story.

If Pitt handles its business, wins its games against the weaker teams in the ACC and competes with Virginia Tech and Miami, the only way to go is up.

“I think there’s room for them to climb a little, not a lot,” DeCourcy said. “But the main thing is if they take care of the games they should win, then they’ll get in.”

Of course, with the way Pitt has been able to close out games in key wins since late December, it doesn’t matter if the games have been close. The only thing that matters now is winning. Execution is important.

Because it’s as if Pitt is competing against Purdue, Alabama and Houston at this point. It’s about jumping over the other bubble teams, Memphis, Northwestern, Arkansas, Iowa and Kentucky and the like, to secure a precious tournament spot.

Pitt has performed well in difficult circumstances, bouncing back from a rough 1-3 start in November, to sit in a position where the NCAA Tournament isn’t just a possibility, it’s right there for the taking.

“The best-case scenario is they continue to win those games, the obvious games that you’re supposed to win,” DeCourcy said. “If they win those, they get in, they’re probably — ballpark — 8/9 seed. Maybe their best-case scenario is they don’t win their way into an 8/9, but they stay right where they are as a 10 and take their best shot.

“Because if you think about it, the teams at the top of this bracket, with the possible expectation of Purdue, they’ve all shown the ability to be really great on occasion … But they’ve also all been beaten by teams that aren’t great.”

All Pitt has to do is get in. It doesn’t matter if it’s as a 7, 8, 9, 10 or even an 11 seed, although, the upper half of the projection will be preferred. Pitt can continue to climb as it stacks wins, but it doesn’t need to.

“If you get in as a 9 or 10, especially a 10, you can look at it and say, ‘Hey, it’s not gonna be easy, but we can do this,'” DeCourcy said.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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