Panthers look to make splash in ACC Tournament

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Panthers look to make splash in ACC Tournament

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett's Cavaliers enter this year's ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second straight season.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett's Cavaliers enter this year's ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second straight season.

Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett's Cavaliers enter this year's ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second straight season.

Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS

Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett's Cavaliers enter this year's ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second straight season.

By Ben Bobeck, Staff Writer

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Barring a miracle of unprecedented proportion, the Pitt men’s basketball team will not be dancing come NCAA Tournament time this March.

Yet despite their struggles, including a 13-game losing streak snapped with Saturday’s Senior Day victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Coach Jeff Capel’s Panthers have routinely demonstrated their ability to be competitive against lower level teams in the ACC — even if the results don’t always show. And for one more stretch, at the 2019 New York Life ACC Championship Tournament at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, both the Panthers’ veterans — senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame and grad transfer Sidy N’dir — and first-year sensations Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens will have one last opportunity to showcase how far they’ve come.

Pitt will get its shot on the first day of tournament play as the No. 14 seed taking on the No. 11 seeded Boston College Eagles, whom they fell to on the road 66-57 back on Feb. 12.

No one expected much from this Pitt team at the beginning of the season, with question marks at nearly every position, including the first seat on the bench. But a strong showing in non-conference play and a hot start to ACC matchups, including upsets over ranked teams in Florida State and Louisville, suddenly had expectations soaring, only to fall crashing back down to earth. Despite the 13-game losing stretch, the Panthers finished the season on a positive note by eking out a win over Notre Dame on Senior Day.

As for Pitt’s opponent, the Eagles are led by junior guard Ky Bowman — subject of the much-panned “iso cam” utilized by the ESPN broadcast in their previous matchup.

Bowman is a multi-faceted guard who can excel both in creating his own shots and creating offense for others, averaging 19.2 points and 4.0 assists per game. The Panthers did well to contain him offensively in the previous matchup, allowing 14 points on 4-16 shooting from the field. But if they plan on extending their stay in the Queen City and advancing to a second round matchup with No. 6 Syracuse on Wednesday, a top-tier performance is needed.

Beating the Irish was a positive step for the Panthers, not just because it secured a non-last place finish in the ACC. The revitalized scoring of McGowens off the bench (16 points on 6-10 shooting) is a massive stepping stone for an offense that has struggled with consistency. But the continued underperformance of centers Kene Chukwuka and Terrell Brown will be a massive roadblock in Pitt’s game plan, as the duo combine to average just 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

In all likelihood, Pitt’s run through the tournament may last one, possibly two games by the most optimistic of projection. Which begs the question — once the Panthers have been eliminated, who will be left?

The field begins with last season’s tournament champion and this season’s regular season co-champion in No. 1 seed Virginia looking to repeat and avenge their bracket-shattering loss in the 2018 NCAA tournament to UMBC (see This Is March Take 5). The Cavaliers, known for their signature defensive style under four-time ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett, have added a new dimension and feel on offense and will have the added benefit of a healthy Deandre Hunter, whose absence was dearly felt in the tournament loss one year ago. Virginia currently ranks No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 2 in margin of victory and No. 3 in defensive field goal percentage.

The only blemishes to Virginia’s season were two losses to Duke, but with the injury and unknown status of star first-year Zion Williamson, the Cavaliers seem primed to shake off the demons of March Past and prevail for their second straight ACC Tournament Championship.

Other frontrunning contenders include the No. 2 North Carolina Tar Heels, who completed a season sweep over rival Duke on Saturday night, thus earning a share of the ACC regular season title. For Roy William’s squad, the emergence of first-year studs Coby White and Nassir Little has driven UNC into a prime spot to make a deep run.

No. 3 Duke meanwhile, now with four losses, still finds itself struggling without the human cheat code that is Zion Williamson. The Blue Devils’ other fantastic frosh RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones have struggled to shoulder the weight left by the 6-foot-7 sized hole in the lineup left by the sensation Williamson.

The depth of the ACC, one of the nation’s leading basketball conferences, can never be doubted, with other teams like No. 4 Florida State and No. 7 Louisville prepared to make a serious push toward an upset in the ACC bracket, while No. 8 NC State and No. 9 Clemson focus on strengthening their resumes for the selection committee come March 17, Selection Sunday.

The 2019 New York Life ACC Tournament tips off Tuesday, Mar. 12, at noon with No. 12 Miami vs. No. 13 Wake Forest from the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC. No. 14 Pitt faces No. 11 Boston College at 7 p.m. on ESPNU/Raycom. The ACC Tournament Championship will be played Sat., March 16, at 8;30 p.m on ESPN. For full bracket visit https://theacc.co/19mbbBracket.

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