Preview | Panthers head into most important game of the year against No. 20 Miami


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Graduate student guard Greg Elliott (3) attempts to pass the ball during Pitt men’s basketball’s game against Wake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 25.

By Jermaine Sykes, Assistant Sports Editor

Heading into February, Pitt men’s basketball is in a prime position to make a deep run into the postseason. A few games stand in the Panthers’ way, but none are bigger than Saturday night’s home game against No. 20 Miami. 

The Panthers split their last six games, but their Wednesday night win over Wake Forest gave them their seventh ACC win. This is the most conference games head coach Jeff Capel has won in a season at Pitt. 

A victory against Miami would give the Panthers a top 25 win, a key factor in their NCAA tournament resumé. The Panthers’ wins over UNC, Virginia, NC State and Northwestern were all key wins that boosted their standing. On the other hand, losses against Vanderbilt and Florida State are games Pitt wishes it could get back.

Defending the home court against a top 20 team is a huge boost on the Panthers’ resumé, making Sunday’s matchup crucial to the Panthers’ tournament hopes. 

But how will the Panthers pull out the win against Miami? For one, they must continue their hot streak from the three-point line. At their Wednesday night game against Wake Forest, the Panthers set a program record with 18 threes, including nine from junior forward Blake Hinson and six from graduate student guard Greg Elliott.

The Panthers don’t have to break a program record to win on Saturday, but they have to shoot well. They should have enough opportunities from behind the arc against a Miami defense who allows opponents to shoot 31.5 percent from three.

Consistency is also a key factor for the Panthers. At their peak offense, the Panthers can score on the same level as the best offenses in the country. But the Panthers have a problem finishing games. 

The Panthers have blown six double-digit leads in the second half this season. Part of this issue is because their offense goes stale in the second half of games. The Panthers scored 49 of their 81 points in the first half of their game against Wake Forest.

And the Panthers’ reliance on their stars is the root of these offensive blunders in the second half. Graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and Hinson are Pitt’s offensive leaders. In the minutes where Hinson and Burton need breaks, the Panthers’ offense isn’t creative enough to find looks for the other players.

The first step for improved consistency in the second half falls on graduate student guard Nelly Cummings. On Wednesday, he facilitated the offense effectively, with six assists. But the best part of his game was his three three-pointers. 

Cummings struggles to consistently score from the field, so the shooting success was big for the Panthers. Prior to Wednesday’s game against Wake Forest, Cummings shot three for 20, with only two three-pointers, in the games against Louisville and Florida State. If Cummings stays consistent, it will give the Panthers a true third option and help their offensive woes in the second half of games. 

Cummings isn’t alone, though. Throughout the season, Elliott has also struggled with consistency. Elliott has five games of 18-plus points. He also has 10 games under double digits. It’s hit or miss with Elliott, and that inconsistency is troublesome for the Panthers. 

Defensively, the Panthers will have their hands full against the No. 10 ranked offense, in terms of efficiency. The Hurricanes score at an elite rate, dropping over 70 points in 11 of their last 12 games. 

The Hurricanes are led by their explosive backcourt. Junior guard Isaiah Wong and senior guard Jordan Miller score a combined 31.1 points per game. If the Panthers can’t contain them, then they are in a world of trouble on the defensive end. 

But the Panthers have a key advantage over the Hurricanes — height. 6-foot-11 sophomore center Federiko Federiko has an opportunity to dominate against a starting lineup whose tallest player is just 6-foot-7. 

All in all, this game is important for both teams. A big road win for the Hurricanes will move them to 17-4 and give them a shot at the ACC regular season championship heading into February. A home win for the Panthers moves them to 15-7 and gives them a chance at their first NCAA tournament appearance under Capel.

Fans can tune into the matchup on ESPNU at 4 p.m. on Saturday.