Pitt basketball to prevail in battle of the big cats

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Pitt basketball to prevail in battle of the big cats

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson (1) avoided turning the ball over at Saturday’s 73-64 victory over Georgia Tech.

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson (1) avoided turning the ball over at Saturday’s 73-64 victory over Georgia Tech.

Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson (1) avoided turning the ball over at Saturday’s 73-64 victory over Georgia Tech.

Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson (1) avoided turning the ball over at Saturday’s 73-64 victory over Georgia Tech.

By Nick Carlisano, Senior Staff Writer

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In what is sure to be a ferocious matchup, the Pitt men’s basketball Panthers (15-9 overall, 6-7 ACC) will host the Clemson Tigers (11-12 overall, 5-8 ACC) at the Petersen Events Center Wednesday at 9 p.m. Pitt has been the hotter of the two teams, winning two of its last three games and all of its last four at the Pete. Meanwhile, the Tigers are on a three-game skid and have dropped four of their last five.

The Panthers are coming off a much-needed home victory against Georgia Tech, and remaining at the Pete rather than hitting the road definitely plays to their advantage. As they continue to show promise and give the fan base hope, the Oakland Zoo only gets louder and rowdier, making it an increasingly tough environment for opponents.

Speaking of showing promise, first-year forward Justin Champagnie did just that against the Yellow Jackets. Champagnie has shown glimpses of stardom this season, but Saturday was a full game of showcasing his abilities. He finished with 30 points on 12-17 shooting, including 3-4 from behind the arc, while also grabbing nine rebounds.

What was truly impressive was Champagnie’s ability to score at multiple levels, whether it was from deep or in the paint. No one expects performances like this consistently, but Saturday just goes to show what Champagnie — now the team’s second-leading scorer — can do on any given night.

Much like the rookie, Pitt’s backcourt of talented sophomores has been up and down all season but put up numbers across the board against Georgia Tech. Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens shot poorly, going a combined 6-22, yet found other ways to contribute. The pair made 11 of 14 shots from the foul line, dished out 16 assists and notched three steals apiece. Johnson also didn’t turn the ball over once, which has been the dominant critique of him thus far.

It remains to be seen which Clemson team shows up to face the Panthers. Will it be the Tigers that took down NC State, UNC and Duke in three consecutive games? Or the Clemson team of late that has struggled to put points on the board, failing to top 45 points in two of its last three games?

Pitt is strongest at home and the Tigers are in a rut right now, which is all the more reason for Capel to make sure his team comes to play. Clemson has shown that, despite its struggles, it is a team that can run with anyone and should not be taken lightly. The Tigers actually played Notre Dame tougher than Pitt did last week, taking the Fighting Irish down to the wire. In comparison, the Panthers struggled to rebound and defend the paint in a game that felt out of reach throughout.

Compared to Pitt’s top trio, the Tigers only have a pair of double-digit scorers that they can count on. Senior guard Tevin Mack poured in 16 points against Notre Dame, while fellow guard Aamir Simms sat out with the flu. Simms’ absence may well have been the difference between a win and a loss for Clemson. It’s likely that Simms will return to the court after getting a few days to rest off the illness, providing the Tigers with an offensive boost against a Pitt defense that often struggles to contain scorers.

In the end, depth — or a lack of it — will be the difference in this late-season conference battle. Will junior forward Terrell Brown or graduate center Eric Hamilton show up? Brown showed his range against Notre Dame with a few jumpers and it may be time to give up on using him as a traditional big. Hamilton hasn’t played well recently, but could provide a solid post presence against the Tigers. With Clemson’s first six players getting the bulk of the playing time, solid minutes from those two and first-year forward Karim Coulibaly could ensure the Panthers come out on top.

Prediction

It’s been an uneven process, but the Panthers are coming into their own a little at a time. If McGowens and Johnson keep finding the open man and putting up points one way or the other, the Panthers are tough to beat. Champagnie won’t reproduce last game’s effort, but bigger games from Toney and his fellow sophomores will replace that production. Clemson keeps it close, but the Pete’s atmosphere is too much as Pitt rides the high of topping last season’s win total to break even in the ACC.

Pitt: 64 Clemson: 59

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