Forget making the NCAA Tournament — the Pitt men’s basketball team will need to pull off an upset on Tuesday just to stay out of the ACC’s cellar.
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings said he wasn’t “up in arms” after the Panthers dropped back-to-back games on the road against the Syracuse Orange and Louisville Cardinals. That was understandable, given that both are notoriously tough places to play, and Louisville is a top-15 team while Syracuse made it to the Final Four last year.
Two losses later, it’s officially time for Stallings to hit the panic button.
Pitt returns home to host the No. 13 Cardinals (16-4 overall, 4-3 ACC) at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night, sporting a four-game losing streak and an ugly 1-5 record in conference play. Only Clemson’s 1-6 ACC record is temporarily keeping the Panthers out of last place.
In order to have any hope of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Panthers will need to win several games against top-ranked opponents. That starts Tuesday against Louisville — a team that has won nine straight games against Pitt, including an 85-80 win Jan. 11, despite a heroic 43-point effort from Jamel Artis.
The Cardinals dominated the first 20 minutes last time, jumping out to a 47-26 halftime lead and building their advantage to 26 early in the second half. But the Panthers slowly crawled back into the game, one Artis 3-pointer at a time, eventually cutting the deficit to five with less than a minute left.
Pitt came up short at Louisville, but this time the team thinks it can replicate the success it found in the second half of that matchup.
“We’ll be better prepared. Going against their defense in the first half, they kind of played man, they kind of played zone … I think it bothered us offensively,” senior forward Michael Young said Monday at a press conference. “I think in the second half we were able to be more successful because we kind of knew what was coming.”
But trying to conquer the Cardinals will be even tougher this time for the Panthers, even at the Pete.
Pitt has sorely missed the contributions of junior forward Ryan Luther, who has been out since the Louisville game with a right foot injury. Stallings said Luther isn’t yet close to a return.
“He’s in a walking boot, but I think that he’s weeks away from playing again, at least to my understanding,” Stallings said at the press conference.
Without Luther as the sixth man, Stallings has been forced to play his starting five for nearly the entire game. In the Panthers’ 72-46 loss to Miami — the team’s most lopsided loss in the history of the Petersen Events Center — Pitt’s bench combined for eight points. In a 79-74 loss to NC State, not a single bench player scored.
Relying on starters to provide all the offense is a surefire way to get blown out in the ACC. Against a team as deep as the Cardinals — Louisville has eight players averaging at least 14 minutes played per game and 10 players averaging more than nine minutes — it’s just not going to work.
Pitt senior forward Sheldon Jeter said the Panthers need to match the Cardinals’ effort and energy level all game long, which they failed to do last time out.
“We kind of came out sluggish [the first game] … we just have to match their intensity,” Jeter said at the press conference.
The problem is, it’s virtually impossible to do so when Pitt’s players have no time to rest while Louisville has an entire lineup of substitutes ready and waiting to provide quality minutes.
Stallings said it’s especially difficult to keep up that intensity on the defensive end for 40 minutes.
“We’re restricted in some cases with our lack of depth,” Stallings said. “There are probably times when we have guys who are saving themselves for offense as opposed to what we need to be doing on defense.”
If the Panthers want to salvage their season, they’ll need to start by beating the Cardinals tomorrow — something that won’t happen without a major turnaround from someone on the bench.