Preview | Panthers take on Mississippi State in the First Four


AP Photo/John Amis

Mississippi State forward Tolu Smith (1) goes to the free throw line after scoring and being fouled by Florida during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Mississippi State won 69-68, and will face Pitt in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

By Jermaine Sykes, Senior Staff Writer

Coming into the year, many didn’t think Pitt men’s basketball would make it this far, but here they are. The Panthers (22-11, 14-6 ACC) go into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed and take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-12, 8-10 SEC) in the First Four. 

The winner of the matchup then travels to Greensboro, North Carolina, to take on Iowa State in the round of 64. But neither the Panthers nor the Bulldogs can look past one another. Their teams’ play styles are almost polar opposites and, if the Panthers want to keep dancing, they must limit their weaknesses.

The Panthers come into the matchup following a disappointing ACC tournament appearance. The Panthers narrowly defeated Georgia Tech 89-81 in the second round, but their run ended after a 96-69 pummeling at the hands of Duke. The loss put the Panthers on the bubble and they had to watch as they were selected as the No. 66 team out of 68. 

Pitt’s strength this season is its high-scoring offense. The Panthers score 76.1 points per game, shooting 36% from three and are the No. 24 ranked team in the country in terms of offensive efficiency. Led by graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and junior forward Blake Hinson — two All-ACC selections — the Panthers’ prolific offense got them to this point. 

But in their way is one of the best defenses in the NCAA. Mississippi State — and its No. 6 ranked defense in terms of efficiency — has held opponents to just 60.4 average points per game. The Bulldogs allowed more than 70 points to another team just six times all season. 

But their kryptonite is on the offensive end, especially from the perimeter. The Bulldogs are the worst shooting team in terms of three-point percentage in the country. The lack of perimeter shooting handicaps the Bulldogs’ offense, whose 65.9 points per game ranks second to last in the SEC.

The Bulldogs’ lone offensive strength is on the interior, which is a bad sign for the Panthers. Senior forward Tolu Smith leads the Bulldogs with 15.8 points per game. Smith is the only Bulldog to average double-digit scoring, but he scores in bunches, especially as of late. Smith scored 16 or more points in six of his last seven games, including three straight double-doubles.

Smith should worry the Panthers because their weakness all year is dominant big men. Duke first-year center Kyle Filipowski gave the Panthers fits twice this season, and the Panthers failed to defeat the Blue Devils. Miami sophomore forward Norchad Omier’s 15 points and 13 rebounds helped end the Panthers’ chance at an ACC regular season championship.

Panthers sophomore center Federiko Federiko is far from a bad defender, with 1.7 blocks per game this season. But in games against talented frontcourts, he often finds himself in foul trouble. Federiko’s trouble with fouls puts first-year forwards Jorge and Guillermo Diaz Graham in situations where they are outmatched. 

If the Panthers don’t contain Smith, they may have the same fate against the Bulldogs. 

The Bulldogs’ backcourt duo of junior Shakeel Moore and senior Dashawn Davis can also give the Panthers problems. The two average 9.8 and 8.6 points, respectively, and have 69 of the Bulldogs’ 172 three-pointers on the season. The Panthers can’t ignore these two.

The catalyst for a win over the Bulldogs is for the Panthers to contain Smith and attack the Bulldogs in transition. Federiko will need to see big minutes, but keeping him fresh and out of foul trouble is huge for the Panthers.

Offensively, the Panthers must shoot better than they shot in their last game against Duke. The Panthers shot five of 18 from three, and Hinson and Burton uncharacteristically scored just 18 combined points.

The ACC tournament saw big games from senior guard Nike Sibande and Guillermo Diaz Graham. Diaz Graham scored a career-high 14 points against Duke. The Panthers need either of the two to step up as bench weapons in case of another off night from their starters. 

If the Panthers can right their wrongs offensively and contain Smith, they will advance to play on Friday against Iowa State. If not, their dance will be cut short.

Fans can watch the First Four matchup Tuesday night at 9:10 pm.