ACC Tournament awaits struggling Panthers

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Michael Reaves/Getty Images/TNS

Duke’s Tre Jones, left, drives against Miami’s Chris Lykes during the second half at the Watsco Center on Jan. 4. Duke won, 95-62.

By Tyler Mathes, For the Pitt News

Pitt’s loss to Georgia Tech Wednesday night signaled the end of its regular season. Next up is the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament starting Tuesday, where the Panthers face a serious uphill battle to advance through the bracket.

The postseason ban placed on Georgia Tech’s basketball program last week shakes up the seeding of the upcoming tournament and makes locking up the 10th seed far more important. This is of no concern to Pitt, however, because its loss to the Yellow Jackets ensured it will earn one of the bottom four seeds and play on the tournament’s first day.

Usually, all 15 teams participate in ACC Tournament play, where seeds one through four have byes until the quarterfinals and seeds five through nine don’t have to play in the first round. However, without Georgia Tech participating this season, the 10th-seeded team also gets a first-round bye and gains an extra day of rest.

The big story to watch for the Panthers will be fatigue. Losing in the second round to Syracuse last season came as no surprise, with what looked like a tapped-out Pitt roster after a grueling season. Pitt will enter the tournament this season in the midst of a seven-game losing streak.

For the rest of the ACC, keep an eye on defending ACC champion Duke and reigning national champion Virginia, along with Louisville and Florida State, as tournament favorites.

Where does Pitt end up?

The final ACC games of the regular season will be played on Saturday, so there’s no way to know right now who Pitt will play in the first round. But by looking at the standings and using this nifty ACC Tournament matchup generator, we can get a pretty good idea.

As previously stated, Pitt is guaranteed to earn an 11th-14th seed, meaning it will play one of its comrades at the bottom of the conference standings — either Miami, Wake Forest or North Carolina, all of whom play their last games on Friday and Saturday.

With North Carolina all but guaranteed to lose to Duke and fall to 6-14 in ACC play, Pitt is unlikely to get stuck with the No. 14 seed on account of having beaten UNC twice this season. With Miami and Wake Forest both playing superior opponents in Syracuse and NC State, respectively, it’s possible that all three teams lose their season finales.

In this best-case scenario, Pitt would earn the No. 11 seed on account of having the greatest round-robin record (3-2) of the four teams tied for last place. This would give the Panthers a winnable game against No. 14 seed North Carolina in the first round, who they already beat twice, followed by a date with No. 6 seed NC State on Day 2, who Pitt lost to by only four.

Realistically, either a first- or second-round loss seems likely based on Pitt’s in-conference play this season (6-14 record) and its past seven games.

If Pitt were to sneak out of the first round with a win, it will face the No. 5 or No. 6 seeded team, which is likely to be either Syracuse or NC State. With the Orange having handed Pitt two decisive losses, the latter opponent would surely be the better case.

As for the rest of the field, it’s really a toss-up at this point. A lot of it will come down to seeding and who ends up with favorable matchups, but don’t count out a team like Syracuse with electric junior scorer Elijah Hughes leading its squad.

College hoops in March is often the most fun fans have all year because of how unpredictable the games are. Conference tournaments can have big surprises just like the NCAA Tournament, and although the ACC has been dominated by four overwhelming favorites this season, there is always room for big upsets in March.

The favorites

The Duke Blue Devils return 2018-19 ACC All-Defensive Team point guard Tre Jones and added talented first-year players Cassius Stanley and Vernon Carey to lead their team through postseason play. Arguably the most talented group of individual basketball players in the ACC, Duke boasts four scorers averaging double digits on the year. Jones is an incredibly skilled defender and passer and has come into his own this year as a scorer.

The Blue Devils may have lost Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish to the NBA, but they remain the cream of the conference crop. Even with a few odd losses, Duke is still a top contender to win the ACC title for the second straight season.

Louisville’s most impactful returnee has been Jordan Nwora, a 2018-19 All-ACC Third Team forward who also earned preseason All-American honors heading into this season. The Cardinals boast one of the more experienced teams in the ACC and while they get almost 20 points per game from Nwora, they also have a well-rounded group that likes to share the ball, with four different players scoring at least eight points per game.

Head coach Chris Mack will look for his veteran leaders to lead Louisville to the ACC Championship and then deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Florida State is an interesting case wherein it lost its top two scorers, Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele, from last season’s crushing ACC Tournament finals loss to Duke. But the Seminoles have been even better this year, with the emergence of sophomore Devin Vassell as a talented scorer. Veteran guards Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker bring much-needed experience to a Florida State team that lost almost its entire starting lineup from a season ago.

Virginia, led by reigning ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett, has beaten FSU and Duke, but also barely scratched out wins against Pitt, Wake Forest, Miami and UNC — the four worst teams in the conference. The sole reason the Cavaliers still belong in the category of favorite is because of their defensive prowess. According to KenPom, Virginia allows the fewest points per 100 possessions in all of college basketball when adjusted for the strength of opponent.

As we all know the old saying goes, defense wins championships — which proved true when the Cavaliers won the National Championship last season.

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