Preview | Pitt basketball looks for a quick bounce back vs. No. 16 Duke


Colleen Nguyen | Staff Photographer

Junior forward William Jeffress (24) takes a shot at the Pitt men’s basketball game against Duke on March 1.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

When the Duke Blue Devils traveled to the Petersen Events Center a year ago to face an 11-18 Pitt team, the contest felt like a foregone conclusion. To nobody’s surprise, the Blue Devils won the game soundly en route to a Final Four appearance.

Fast forward to 2023, and the stakes are drastically different — especially for Pitt. The Panthers are 11-5 (4-1 ACC) and look to give the No. 24 Blue Devils a taste of revenge. 

The Panthers travel to Durham on Wednesday night after a heartbreaking home loss to Clemson on Saturday. The Panthers held the lead late in the game, but fell to the Tigers 75-74. Wednesday night is a significant game for the Panthers, as they have many questions to answer — but a test against one of college basketball’s original blue bloods is exactly what the team needs to see where they must improve going forward.

Something fans should watch for on Wednesday is how graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and junior forward Blake Hinson perform. They have both put together career years and are two of the team’s most prominent leaders.

Hinson and Burton are both posting career highs in points and rebounds this season. Hinson is averaging 16.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, while Burton is impressing with his 16.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. 

Hinson and Burton’s ability to continue their momentum in front of one of College Basketball’s toughest crowds is crucial to Pitt’s chance of winning. But perhaps the team’s most pressing issue is regarding which player will step up as the third man in the Panthers’ rotation.

Time and time again this season, the Panthers are usually propelled by a two-man show on offense. For success down the stretch — and especially on Wednesday — the Panthers need to find a third scoring option.

Graduate student guard Nelly Cummings is Pitt’s point guard and facilitator but isn’t an efficient scorer. Cummings averages 8.1 assists while shooting just 40% from the field and 33% from three.

Graduate student guard Greg Elliott averages 10.4 points per game and has had a few big performances but lacks consistency. Still, he’s one of the Panthers’ most efficient shooters from beyond the arc and is a difference-maker if he gets hot. 

Sophomore center Federiko Federiko has impressed in his first season with the Panthers, averaging 5.8 points and 5.4 rebounds as one of the youngest Panthers on the roster. But to become the Panthers’ third guy, Federiko would have to make a giant leap down the stretch.

The Panthers have felt the absence of junior forward John Hugley, as he was their leading scorer and rebounder in 2021-22. While Hugley takes the time he needs to return to basketball, other players need to step up. For the most part, the rest of the team have contributed with plenty of production in his absence. But in order to beat the Blue Devils on Wednesday, Cummings, Elliott and Federiko must essentially match the production of Hinson and Burton.

For Pitt, one of Wednesday’s biggest question marks is its ability to play strong defense against Duke’s scoring front. The Panthers come into Wednesday with the No. 100 ranked defense in terms of efficiency while the Blue Devils are the No. 35 ranked offense in terms of efficiency. A shootout — which is common for Pitt this year — is not a favorable outcome for the Panthers.

The player-on-player matchups aren’t favorable for the team, either. First-year center Kyle Filipowski leads the way for the Blue Devils, averaging 13.8 points per game. Federiko will have his hands full in that matchup. One player the Panthers might not have to worry about, though, is Duke’s star junior guard Jeremy Roach, who’s nursing a day-to-day injury.

The final question comes for head coach Jeff Capel and how he will fare against his alma mater and former employer. Capel has only defeated the Blue Devils once since becoming the Panthers’ head coach. 

Despite an offseason full of turnover and questions about his job security, Capel has the Panthers on the verge of their first winning season of his five-year tender. Pitt’s start to this season is eerily similar to when they also started 11-4 in Capel’s first season. The Panthers finished that season 14-19, squandering their optimistic beginning. Still, something about this season feels different, and their strength in ACC play proves that. 

Conference matchups like Wednesday are where coaches show their worth and where programs are built. Capel must make sure the Panthers are ready in order to preserve their hot start.

Tipoff is at 7 p.m in Durham, North Carolina, and fans can tune in on ACC network.