Column | Pitt basketball is poised for tournament berth, but must avoid low-quadrant losses


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt scores during the men’s basketball game against West Virginia on Nov. 11, 2022.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

As a program on the bubble of the NCAA tournament, Pitt men’s basketball isn’t paying any attention to the outside noise that comes with the designation. 

Graduate student point guard Nelly Cummings said he and the rest of his teammates are focused on simply getting better every day.

“Honestly, man, I’m just too locked in,” Cummings said. “Whatever people thought about us before, we want people to continue to think that. We’re just so locked in and focused on getting better every single day.”

While Cummings and his teammates aren’t concerned with what outsiders are saying, Pitt has a real pathway to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016. Let’s talk about where Pitt stands right now and what it’ll take for the Panthers to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

Pitt improved to 15-7 on the year — and third place in the ACC — following their 71-68 win over No. 20 Miami on Saturday. The Panthers’ second straight Quadrant 2 win came in thrilling fashion over the Hurricanes, and directly followed their close victory against Wake Forest three days earlier. Both of these wins will go a long way in helping the Panthers punch their ticket into the big dance, but there’s plenty of work left before they potentially reach the tournament.

Next up for Pitt is a road game against North Carolina — an opponent who Pitt defeated earlier this season in its ACC home opener. A date with the Tar Heels presents Pitt with a massive opportunity at earning another Quadrant 1 win, which would greatly improve their tournament chances. At the same time, it isn’t a must-win game by any stretch. 

The NCAA Tournament selection committee will use the NET rankings to sort out the tournament field. The number of Quadrant 1 wins and Quadrant 3 and 4 losses that teams have will play a decisive role in determining who is worthy of making the tournament. Pitt is in good shape, sitting at 3-2 against Quadrant 1 opponents. 

But Pitt’s resume isn’t without blemishes. Pitt is a combined 8-1 against Quadrant 3 and 4 opponents — the one loss coming to a 7-15 Florida State team at home a few weeks ago. That is the type of loss that teams must avoid if they want to make the tournament, and it could keep the Panthers out of the tournament depending on how they finish the season.

ESPN Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, listed Pitt inside his “Last Four In” after the Panthers’ win over Miami. Lunardi views Pitt as a tournament team, but he predicts that the Panthers would find themselves in a play-in game — a win-and-in scenario where they would face off against another “bubble team” for a spot in the tournament.

Luckily for Pitt, they still have plenty of opportunities to play themselves off of the bubble and cement themselves firmly inside the tournament field if they take care of business against inferior opponents. After going on the road against North Carolina, the Panthers schedule softens up considerably — with Pitt possessing a better record than all of its February opponents outside of the Tar Heels. 

Pitt will Louisville, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Syracuse — who have a combined record of 11-32 in the ACC. Syracuse is the only team out of the bunch who is more than .500 on the season. Pitt already beat Louisville, Georgia Tech and Syracuse on the road this season. Of course, there are no easy games in the ACC — but the hardest part of the Panthers schedule is behind them. 

The magic number for Pitt to get in the tournament will depend on who the rest of their losses come to. If they drop another game against a Quadrant 3 or 4 opponent, they will likely need at least 21 victories and an ACC Tournament game win to feel solid about their position heading into Selection Sunday. 

But if Pitt doesn’t have another slip up, then 20 wins feels like it gets the job done. After all, the Panthers boast a collection of quality wins, and they are looking better as time goes on. Road wins at Northwestern and NC State have turned into great wins for Pitt considering their opponents’ success. The Panthers also have a win over No. 7 Virginia, which headlines a number of impressive wins at home.

Pitt is drawing comparisons to last year’s Wake Forest team — who went 23-9 and was controversially left out of the field of 68. Wake probably deserved to make the tournament but they had just one Quadrant 1 victory and played a bottom 20 non-conference strength of schedule. They also lost to 13-19 Boston College in the ACC Tournament, in a game that likely would’ve secured a tournament berth for the Demon Deacons had they won. 

Pitt’s non-conference schedule wasn’t a gauntlet by any means, but it holds up far better than the out of conference schedule Wake Forest played last season. Between playing a tougher schedule outside the ACC and having more quality wins, Pitt is in a better spot than Wake was last season. 

Notre Dame is another comparable team based on last season’s results. The Irish earned the No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament after going 22-10 last season, but went just 2-7 against Quadrant 1 opponents. Against Quadrant 1 and 2 teams, the Irish went 4-9. Pitt is currently 7-6 against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents — a significantly better record than their ACC counterpart. 

Pitt is also 3-2 against AP Top 25 teams — the best record against ranked teams in the ACC — so their resumé looks good stacked up against the ACC’s bubble teams from a year ago. 

Given the favorable schedule the rest of the way, there’s a good chance Pitt’s seven year tournament drought ends in just over a month. Pitt’s tournament hopes will come down to how they fare against teams that they should beat. But there’s a reason why they play the games, and Pitt will need a strong finish to leave no doubt that they belong in the field.