Previewing Pitt basketball’s full conference slate

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Previewing Pitt basketball’s full conference slate

The Pitt men’s basketball team fell 69-65 to a Wake Forest team that was projected to finish last in the conference.

The Pitt men’s basketball team fell 69-65 to a Wake Forest team that was projected to finish last in the conference.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

The Pitt men’s basketball team fell 69-65 to a Wake Forest team that was projected to finish last in the conference.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

The Pitt men’s basketball team fell 69-65 to a Wake Forest team that was projected to finish last in the conference.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

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Pitt men’s basketball is experiencing some deja vu. 

Almost one year ago, Pitt ended a 690-day winless streak in conference play with a win over the Louisville Cardinals and five days later pulled off another thrilling upset over No. 11 Florida State. 

Expectations skyrocketed. The Panthers sat with a 2-2 record in the nation’s toughest basketball conference and observers began to think that the limits of youth had been overestimated. If they were able to compete with that kind of brutal opening schedule, is an NCAA Tournament berth really that much of a reach?

Turns out it was.

Following their win over Florida State, the Panthers lost 13 in a row before sneaking past fellow cellar-dweller Notre Dame on Senior Day. To this day, the Panthers haven’t won an ACC contest on the road since February of 2017.

Now the Panthers are finding themselves in familiar territory after falling to Wake Forest on Saturday and not living up to the expectations that their early results carried. After wins over Florida State, Kansas State, Northwestern and Rutgers during the non-conference portion of their schedule, Pitt was poised to make a breakthrough as conference play began in earnest this past weekend.

But instead, the Panthers suffered a brutal setback to a Wake Forest squad that was picked to finish last in the conference and are once again below .500 in league play. The ACC, while currently experiencing a down year in terms of overall conference strength as UNC and Syracuse regress, still has the kind of depth that leaves little room for error. 

Head coach Jeff Capel echoed that sentiment — one he’s repeated all season — following the Wake Forest game.

“We have to make the right decisions all the time,” Capel said. “That has to be a requirement from here on out … No disrespect to the Monmouth’s or the Canisius’ or the Arkansas Pine-Bluff’s, but this league is a lot different from that. Today showed that.”

The Panthers already relinquished some of that wiggle room against the Demon Deacons, and now their continued climb off of the conference floor is that much more difficult. Before losing to Wake, Pitt had already notched a win over one of the ACC’s powers, but is now left with more ground to make up after dropping a game to one of the conference’s worst. 

Fortunately, their schedule sets up as favorably as possible. Pitt only plays the league’s top five teams in consecutive games on two occasions. The first comes later this month, when Louisville and UNC visit the Pete. The Panthers will also have four days off in between those contests. 

They’ll once again have to face a gauntlet of consecutive league contenders in road trips to Virginia Tech and Florida State before returning home to host reigning national champion Virginia and rival Syracuse. 

This stretch comes at a critical time. Unless the Panthers drop winnable games to teams like Miami, Notre Dame or Clemson, that four-game stretch in mid-February could make or break their chances of an NCAA Tournament bid.

Last season was about growth, tangible or otherwise, and the Panthers could be satisfied with their progress, even though they finished with a losing record. Now they need to stack wins. Pitt’s players made it clear that they entered this season with high goals, but potential and desire can only carry a team so far.

It’s put up or shut up for the Panthers as they enter the mid-winter grind of conference play.

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