Rocky road ahead for Pitt’s tournament pursuit


Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Pitt’s men’s basketball team has the opportunity to earn an at-large bid in the March Madness tournament if the team can keep winning for the remainder of the season.

By Joe Melillo, For The Pitt News

After a surprisingly competitive start to the season, all of Oakland has one thing on their minds — March basketball for the Pitt Panthers.

Pitt sits with a 13-7 overall record (4-5 in the ACC) after Saturday’s 69-61 loss at Syracuse. The team boast quality wins over Florida State, Rutgers and UNC, yet also have some discouraging losses against Nicholls State and Wake Forest. As it stands, Pitt has an outside chance to earn an at-large bid in the March Madness tournament — provided it keeps winning. Here are three keys to getting the University of Pittsburgh at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March.

1) Win 20 Games

This year’s top 25 rankings have been more volatile than any year in recent memory. Evansville beat then-No. 1 Kentucky in October and ever since, several teams have occupied the top spot over the course of this wild season. This is why it is absolutely imperative that Pitt hits the 20-win mark.

In recent years, almost all tournament teams that received at-large bids won 20 or more games over the course of their season. It seems that the only teams who sneak into the tournament with less than 20 wins are the teams who receive automatic bids from winning their conference — something that is probably out of reach for the Panthers.

This would mean that Pitt would have to go 7-4 for the rest of the season — a pretty daunting task when you consider the fact that it has games against Florida State, Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia and Syracuse left on the schedule. Winning 20 games would almost ensure that the Panthers need to win a few games as underdogs. It makes this year’s losses to Nicholls State and Wake Forest sting even more.

2) Finish with a winning ACC record

The first two keys on this list are pretty closely related, as Pitt only has ACC opponents left on the schedule for this season. The Panthers own a 4-5 record in the ACC, a mark that must improve in order to get a tournament nod.

In past years, the Panthers could have relied on the strength of the ACC to boost their resumé — most years, a .500 ACC record would be quite impressive to the tournament selection committee. This year, however, traditional conference powers like Duke, UNC and Louisville have suffered tough losses. In other words, the ACC does not boast its usual top-tier strength. This is why the Panthers must differentiate themselves and prove that they can win in what looks like a fairly average conference this year.

This is an attainable benchmark for Pitt. With 11 games left to play, the team would have to finish 6-5 to ensure a .500 record, and every additional win would help the Panthers separate themselves in a wide-open ACC. This requires the Panthers to win the games they are supposed to — Miami, Georgia Tech and Clemson should all be wins. But this year isn’t fit for guarantees.

3) Win at least a game of the ACC Tournament

Should Pitt fail to accomplish either of the first two keys, this is an area where it can make up serious ground. Losing in the first round of the ACC tournament would be disastrous and could possibly derail a team with 20 wins and a positive ACC record. It is imperative that Pitt wins in the first round and prove that it’s among the ACC’s up-and-comers this year.

Should the Panthers have 20 wins and win two rounds of the ACC tournament, they are virtually a lock to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s no easy task, but advancing in the ACC tournament looks to be a major swing factor for a Pitt team that projects to the bubble for this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

Final verdict

Pitt has a young team, highlighted by three underclassmen starters. The program’s improvement in Capel’s second year has been stellar already. This was a team that could not win a single ACC game two years ago and now is sitting on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament — a remarkable result for such a small amount of time. The Panthers are poised to improve again as Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Justin Champagnie gain another year of experience and star recruits Noah Collier and John Hugley arrive in the fall.

With that being said, I believe that the Panthers will just miss this year’s tournament and end up with a NIT bid. Pitt boasts great potential, but it needs another year of experience to start closing out tough games and becoming a force in the ACC. Capel has assembled a stellar 2020 recruiting class that figures to fill some huge personal needs of the current team. Pitt figures to be on track for a tournament bid next year and to be a serious contender in the ACC the year after.