How to sneak past the Deacs: Can Pitt beat Wake?

John Collins tries to block Ryan Luther during a game last February. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

Just when it seemed like the Pitt men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament chances were disappearing, the Panthers beat their second top-25 team of the season and kept some hope alive.

Pitt’s 80-66 win over the No. 17 Florida State Seminoles Saturday was arguably the team’s most impressive all-around performance of the season, but the Panthers (15-12 overall, 4-10 ACC) will have to match or exceed that level of play the rest of the way to have a chance at making the tournament.

The team’s next opportunity to boost its tournament resume will come Wednesday night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when Pitt squares off with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (15-12 overall, 6-9 ACC). Here’s a look at how the two teams stack up:

Boost from the bench

The Panthers have sorely missed having junior forward Ryan Luther in their lineup. Since he suffered a foot injury in practice prior to the team’s 72-46 loss against Miami Jan. 14, the Panthers have relied on their starting five to play an overwhelming amount of minutes.

The team lost its first six games without Luther, but has won three out of the past four — and while the starters are still doing most of the work, contributions from reserves have certainly helped.

Five bench players saw at least five minutes of action in Pitt’s win over Florida State on Saturday, while redshirt junior Rozelle Nix and true freshman point guard Justice Kithcart played 10 and 12 minutes, respectively. The Panthers still only received seven points from their bench, but the ability for the reserves to step in and provide the starters with much-needed rest made sure the starters were ready to close out the win at the end of the second half.

“One of the challenges of not winning is the guys that don’t play as much tend to be a little less engaged,” Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings said at his Monday media teleconference. “It was nice to see those guys come off the bench and give us a shot in the arm the other day and give us some good minutes and help us win.”

In order to keep up the strong play down the stretch, Pitt will need its bench players to not only provide quality minutes but contribute more offensively as well.

Containing Collins

If the Panthers want to pick up their fourth win in five games, they’ll need to find a way to keep Wake Forest power forward John Collins from dominating at the rim and on the glass.

Stallings called Collins “as good if not better than any post player in the league.” That’s certainly high praise in such a stacked conference, but it’s hard to argue with Stallings. Collins ranks in the top five in the ACC in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 19 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Although Pitt has tall, lengthy guards in 6-foot-7 point guard Jamel Artis and 6-foot-8 shooting guard Cameron Johnson, the Panthers lack a true post presence down low in their starting lineup.

Senior forward Michael Young is the team’s tallest starter at 6-foot-9, but he’s not a traditional power forward. Pitt may need to turn to 6-foot-11, 310-pound center Rozelle Nix from the bench earlier than usual to try to limit Collins’ presence in the paint.

The three is the key

In today’s game, the 3-point basket is incredibly important — and the Demon Deacons know how to use it.

Wake Forest is shooting 38.5 percent as a team from beyond the arc, good for third-best in the ACC. The Panthers aren’t far behind, ranking sixth in the conference at 37.8 percent as a team. Both teams have multiple players capable of knocking down long-range shots, but each of them has a distinct 3-point threat that can alter the outcome of any game.

For Pitt, it’s Johnson, who leads the ACC with 67 3-pointers made on the season and 2.5 made 3-pointers per game. He is shooting 43.2 percent from deep, ranking ninth in the ACC. But the Demon Deacons have a sharpshooter of their own: sophomore guard Keyshawn Woods.

Woods isn’t chucking up nearly as many threes as Johnson, who attempts 6.1 threes per contest. Woods only attempts 3.4 shots per game from behind the line, but he makes nearly half of those tries — giving him the second-highest 3-point percentage in the league at 47.3 percent.

The key to this game could come down to which sophomore guard is able to get into a rhythm and which team is able to force the opponent’s long-range shooter off the 3-point line.

“I think that what jumps off the page about Wake is their ability to score both inside and outside,” Stallings said Monday. “They can really stretch you out, and they’ve got a guy inside that can score 25 or 30 on any given night. That’s a handful … it will be a big challenge because, again, they’re deep, they’re very talented and they’re very well-coached.”

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