Six Years in the Making, Nike Sibande Ready to Make March Madness Debut
DAYTON, Ohio – It’s been a long ride for Nike Sibande to make it to this moment. A moment not many players get to experience and cherish the opportunity to be a part of. Six years after making his NCAA debut during the 2017-18 campaign and recovering from a torn ACL, the ACC Sixth Man of the Year is ready to make his NCAA Tournament debut.
“It means a lot,” Sibande said. “This is my first time being in March Madness and the NCAA Tournament. A lot of emotions. We really wanted this since the beginning of the season. This is a goal that we had and to be here is amazing and surreal.”
The surreal feeling is shared throughout the Panther locker room, a feeling a Pitt team has not felt since the 2015-16 season before Jeff Capel stepped on campus. Pitt will face Mississippi State in the First Four from Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday night – both as No. 11 seeds – with the winner advancing to the round of 64 against Iowa State. The four-hour journey from Pittsburgh presents the opportunity for a conglomerate of Pitt fans to come together and create a raucous atmosphere for its first tournament appearance in seven years.
“It’s exciting,” Sibande said. “People are going to be here. I think the environment is going to be really good and good for us.”
Pitt’s veteran experience was widely known and discussed throughout the ACC season and now turns to the national stage. Sibande began his career at Miami, Ohio, only one hour away from the University of Dayton Arena. The Indiana 3A state champion was named MAC Freshman of the Year with the RedHawks and averaged 15.1, 16.1, and 13.9 points per game in three seasons before wanting a new challenge at the Power Five level.
Sibande chose Pitt for his 2020-21 season, being deemed eligible halfway through December in a year affected by the pandemic. He started eight of 14 games and strove to return to the Panthers the following year. An ACL tear in exhibition play prevented the goal from becoming reality. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 8.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in the regular season as a spark plug off the bench. He believes his years of experience, and that of his teammates, have prepared him for March Madness.
“Being poised and being in the moment,” Sibande said. “Play our game and be comfortable. Not thinking too much. When you’re young, you probably get in the moment and think too much. When you have a couple of years under your belt, you just play the game and let it all happen.”
Surrounded by veterans in their final year of eligibility, Sibande has grown in his three years at Pitt along with the bonds and connections with his teammates.
“We all are brothers. We look at each other like brothers,” Sibande said. “We have each other’s back on and off the court. That’s one thing about this team I really love. We all are close and cool with one another.”
I think it’s huge,” head coach Capel said. “The really good teams that I’ve been a part of throughout my career, whether it was as a player, as a head coach, an assistant coach, the one thing that’s been common in all of those really good teams is that they like each other. It’s their relationships off the court.
“I think the more you know your teammates and the more you genuinely care about them — and I think the only way you can really care about someone is to get to know them — that goes a long way.”
The Panthers snuck into the NCAA Tournament but historically, teams who advance from the First Four find success in the Round of 64. Since its inception in 2010-11, a team has won a game past the play-in every season but in 2019. Two teams – VCU and UCLA – advanced to the Final Four.
“In the blink of an eye, we can get it going,” Sibande said. “Anybody can get hot on this team… We’re a dangerous team to play in March, for sure.”
Once he saw the Panthers’ name appear in the bracket on Selection Sunday, Sibande knew his dedication and hard work has all led up to this, looking for Pitt’s and his own one shining moment.
“I just feel excited,” Sibande said. “I’m ready to play. Once I’d seen our name yesterday [Sunday] go across the screen I’m like ‘let’s go, let’s get there today!’”