Men’s basketball takeaways | March has created uncertainty for Panthers


AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Pittsburgh guard Nelly Cummings drives between Georgia Tech guard Dallan Coleman and guard Kyle Sturdivant during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C.

By Richie Smiechowski and Frankie Richetti

Quite often in college basketball, teams at the brink of an NCAA tournament berth play their best basketball of the year in March. When the stakes are highest, they play with a surplus of passion and grit, refusing to let their season end earlier than it should.

Look at Virginia Tech’s magical run through the ACC tournament last year. The Hokies came in as the No. 7 seed and knocked off each of the top three seeded teams en route to a conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth.

For teams like Virginia Tech and many others across the country — by winning and making the most of their final regular season and conference tournament games in March, they effectively play themselves into NCAA tournament contention. From there, history shows that anything can happen. 

Pitt on the other hand, has nearly played itself out of contention in March. 

Just two weeks ago, fans began packing their bags for Greensboro, planning their Thursday itineraries around an automatic quarterfinal bid after beating cellar dwellers Notre Dame. 

Instead, the Panther’s ACC tournament doomsday scenario occurred. Pitt took one of their worst losses of the year against Notre Dame, then dropped a thrilling contest on Saturday against Miami. 

In just one week Pitt dropped from sitting atop the conference with two byes in hand to fighting its way up the ACC ladder as a No. 5 seed. 

But still, the Panthers were very much in NCAA tournament contention — they just needed a respectable showing against Georgia Tech. They did just that, knocking off Georgia Tech and moving on to a quarterfinals showdown against red hot Duke. 

Even after their win, fans and experts alike generally felt that a respectable showing against the Blue Devils would solidify the Panthers March Madness berth, and give everyone a sense of calm heading into Selection Sunday. 

That most certainly didn’t happen. Pitt’s 27 point loss to Duke came at the absolute worst possible time for the Panthers, and suddenly, March Madness no longer feels like a guarantee. 

But despite the losses and the lackluster March that Pitt is experiencing — there is still hope for a tournament bid. 

From a strictly on-court perspective of Pitt’s recent woes, it doesn’t take a long look at the statistics to see where things are going wrong. Despite averaging just over 78 points per game in March — a number that would have ranked second in the conference during the regular season — the Panthers have given up an average of over 85 points per game in their last four contests. 

As the old adage goes, “offense wins games, defense wins championships.” With this defense, Pitt isn’t winning any championships. 

During the regular season the Panthers were solid, and even after their recent lapse the Panthers rank sixth in the ACC in opposing points per game with 70.6. Against Duke, Pitt struggled in virtually every area defensively, finding no answers for the Blue Devils perimeter threat or extreme physicality in the paint. 

The Panthers don’t have much time to fix their defensive issues before heading into postseason play which begs the question — what tournament will Pitt find itself in next week?

If you ask ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the answer is still the NCAA Tournament. 

“My gut tells me they’re on the bubble of the bubble for the first four. If that’s the case then they’re going to make the tournament,” Lunardi said. “I think they’ll make it but I certainly wouldn’t rule out that bus trip to Dayton.

After Friday’s results, Pitt is still inside of Lunardi’s “Last Four In” which would mean a trip to Dayton for the play-in game. While idle, the Panthers received a lot of help in the form of Clemson, Oregon and Arizona State losing which gave them a little more room to breathe — especially considering that they all lost in blowouts. All three teams are currently below Pitt in Lunardi’s updated projection. 

Lunardi tweeted out early Friday morning that Pitt, Clemson, Arizona State, Oklahoma State and Utah State were all in the mix for the final three bids in the field. Utah State is currently the only team that is still alive in conference tournament play. Lunardi also listed that Vanderbilt is lurking for one of those final spots — the Commodores beat Kentucky on Friday night which figures to give them a lot of momentum. But they likely need a win over Texas A&M on Saturday to get into the field. 

As of now, Pitt is in a good spot. But things change quickly in college basketball. With teams like Ohio State, UAB and Cincinnati still alive in their respective conference tournaments, Pitt is in danger of losing a bid if any of those teams go on to win their conference tournament and steal a bid.