The Pitt men’s basketball team has faced a grueling schedule this season, ranked eighth-toughest in the country by CBS Sports. So, after eight straight losses to quality conference opponents, Wednesday night’s game should provide a much-needed respite.
If the last-place Panthers (12-11 overall, 1-9 ACC) are ever going to win a game without junior forward Ryan Luther, who is sidelined because of a foot injury, Wednesday might be their best shot. The team will travel to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, to take on the second-to-last team in the ACC, the Boston College Eagles (9-14 overall, 2-9 ACC) at 7 p.m.
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings said he isn’t buying that Boston College is an easy opponent for his team.
“Boston College, despite their record, it seems to me has been playing very well,” Stallings said at a media teleconference Monday. “I know they had a tough game against Louisville [in which BC lost 90-67] over the weekend, but they look like a very good team to me. We know we’ll have our hands full again.”
BC is riding a seven-game losing streak of its own, but still has the potential to cause matchup problems for Pitt. The Eagles have a pair of talented young guards in sophomore shooting guard Jerome Robinson and true freshman point guard Ky Bowman. Bowman is averaging 13.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, while Robinson ranks fourth in the ACC with 19.4 points per game.
Stallings knows defending Boston College’s guards will be a top priority as well as a major challenge for the Panthers, who lack a true point guard of their own.
“Their backcourt is really, really good offensively,” Stallings said Monday. “You can throw [Jordan] Chatman and [A.J.] Turner in there, too. They run a lot of really good things for those guys.”
Luther, Pitt’s sixth man and key defensive asset, is averaging 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game on a team-best .563 field goal percentage. But he’s missed the Panthers’ last six games — all losses — while dealing with a right foot injury.
Stallings admitted Luther is getting closer to a return but doesn’t expect him back Wednesday night, instead predicting Luther will return to the court by the Virginia Tech game this Tuesday.
In Luther’s absence, Stallings has been forced to play his starting five for nearly the entire game. Because of this, Stallings has experimented with different lineups lately, and one bench player provided a bit of a spark last week: 6-foot-11, 310-pound redshirt junior center Rozelle Nix.
Nix — one of the Oakland Zoo’s most beloved players in recent memory, thanks to his atypically large frame and tenacious playing style — played a career-high 12 minutes off the bench in Pitt’s devastating 80-78 defeat Jan. 31 to No. 12 North Carolina, finishing with two points and two rebounds against the Tar Heels.
The big man then one-upped himself next time out, tallying seven points and five rebounds on 3-of-4 shooting in 16 minutes of action Saturday against No. 21 Duke.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s pretty exciting,” Nix said at a press conference Monday. “But I just can’t look at that like it’s my best game — I’ve just got to look forward and keep on getting better and better as the season goes by.”
With seven minutes left in the game and the Panthers trailing 50-45, Nix displayed a surprising moment of grace in the post. The massive center caught the ball in the paint, spun around and dropped a soft baby hook in the bucket to bring Pitt within three.
“That’s like my bread and butter right there,” Nix said. “That right-hand hook, that’s always been my favorite.”
The Panthers couldn’t escape North Carolina with a win, falling to Duke 72-64. But despite losing in heartbreaking fashion yet again, Nix said the team left Carolina feeling upbeat.
“We can get them back in the ACC tournament,” Nix said. “We can go far.”
The non-stop energy Nix brings to the court might be rubbing off on the rest of the Panthers, as Stallings said he has noticed the increased level of intensity in his team during the past two games. But it remains to be seen if Pitt can keep it up against teams that don’t have the pedigree of Duke and UNC.
“Certainly, when you play elite teams and elite programs, that tends to bring out the best in players,” Stallings said. “It’s going to be our only chance for success if we continue to play really, really hard and hopefully play well.”