Preview: Panthers men’s basketball looks to keep it rolling vs. Virginia Tech


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Sophomore center Federiko Federiko (33) dunks the ball during Pitt men’s basketball’s game against Boston College.

By Jermaine Sykes, Senior Staff Writer

Last February, the Panthers were embarrassed on the road against Virginia Tech 74-47. The Hokies would use the victory as momentum towards a 2022 ACC tournament championship.

A year later, and the situation is completely different. The Hokies (15-11, 5-10 ACC) aren’t the same team they were in 2021-22. But Pitt men’s basketball (19-7, 12-3 ACC) — one of the hottest teams in the entire NCAA — controls its own destiny in winning the ACC regular season crown.

Their path is simple. The Panthers are first in the ACC. If they win out, their head-to-head tiebreaker over No. 7 Virginia would give the Panthers the regular season title and give them the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.

The first test for the Panthers on their way to Greensboro, North Carolina, is traveling to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on the Hokies. 

The Panthers have won six ACC contests in a row, including a convincing win over Boston College on Tuesday. The Hokies, on the other hand, have lost their last two ACC matchups.

The Hokies are led by their experienced front court, with graduate student forward Grant Basile and senior forward Justyn Mutts leading the way for them. Basile leads the Hokies in points per game with 16.5, and has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games. His ability to stretch the floor is vital for Virginia Tech.

Mutts — who averages 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game — is also on a hot streak, with six straight games in double digit scoring. Mutts is the Hokies leader in assists and rebounds.

Ultimately, Pitt sophomore center Federiko Federiko and junior forward Blake Hinson will have tough matchups guarding the experienced frontcourt. Federiko’s duty is to defend the interior and out-rebound Mutts, while Hinson will try to fend off Basile from the three-point line. 

Earlier in the season, especially vs. Duke, a talented frontcourt was the Panthers’ kryptonite. Federiko has another tough matchup, but his play of late and six-foot-11 frame gives him the advantage over the Hokies. 

Federiko has had five straight games with three or more blocks, and his 1.96 blocks per game rank No. 3 in the ACC. Federiko has developed into an elite defender for the Panthers as of late despite the questionable start to the season. 

The Hokies backcourt is led by sophomore guard Sean Pedulla. Pedulla is No. 2 on the Hokies in assists and averages 15.5 points per game. Pedulla was held under double digits just twice all season. The Hokies run through their frontcourt, but the Panthers can’t sleep on Pedulla.

Offensively, the Panthers face the No. 5 ranked defense in the ACC. But Hinson’s reliability for the Panthers all season, along with graduate student guard Jamarius Burton, gives them the edge. Burton and Hinson are one of the best one-two punches in the ACC, and their play is a big reason why the Panthers are first in the ACC.

But all season their offense relies on the play of others. Graduate student guards Nelly Cummings and Greg Elliott play huge roles as the third and fourth options in this Panthers offense. Elliott, No. 7 in the ACC in three-pointers made, is on fire as of late, with three straight games with four or more three-pointers. 

Cummings, on the other hand, is very up and down. In some games, like against North Carolina, he leads the Panthers as their playmaker and a dynamic scorer. Other games, like against Florida State, Cummings can’t get it going.

If the Panthers get Cummings and Elliott incorporated early and often, their offense will have nothing to worry about. But problems arise if this doesn’t happen.

Bench play is the x factor for the Panthers on Saturday. Senior guard Nike Sibande is their sixth man and his 7.8 points per game off the bench is vital for the Panthers. But outside of Sibande, there is not much scoring off the bench, primarily due to youth.

First-year forwards Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham average a combined 5.7 points per game. Sophomore forward Nate Santos averages just 1.8 points per game. The Panthers need more out of the young players for success down the stretch of the season. They can’t keep relying on big minutes from their starters and Sibande.

The Hokies are a talented but flawed team. The Panthers outmatch them, but the Hokies are no easy opponent, especially on the road. The game is the first test in the Panther’s quest to win their first ACC regular season title since joining the conference. 

Fans can watch the ACC matchup Saturday at 5 p.m. on the ACC network.