Men’s basketball takeaways | Cummings steps up, Panthers’ lack of size is a major issue


AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Pittsburgh’s Blake Hinson (2) celebrates after Pittsburgh defeated Mississippi State in a First Four game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Dayton, Ohio.

By Jack Markowski, Staff Writer

Pitt men’s basketball earned its way out of the First Four in a chaotic back-and-forth win over Mississippi State 60-59. The victory represents the Panthers’ first in the NCAA tournament since 2014

Here are three takeaways from the contest. 

Cummings steps up when Pitt needed it most

The Panthers faced adversity early in the game when senior guard Jamarius Burton got into foul trouble early. Pitt’s rotation already ran thin without sophomore center Federiko Federiko, and the absence of two key players against an elite defense signaled trouble. Senior guard Nelly Cummings stepped up, however, and took over as the Panthers won their first NCAA tournament game in nine years. 

The Pittsburgh native led Pitt in scoring with 15 points on 6-13 shooting from the field and 2-4 shooting from behind the arc. Cummings continued his playmaking ways against Mississippi State as well with four assists. He also added two steals as part of a complete defensive effort by the Panthers. 

Cummings has shown pride in representing Pitt since arriving this offseason and made it clear that bringing the Panthers back into the national spotlight was his main priority. He’s done just that and more, and his contributions all over the court are a main reason why they’ve found success. 

The Panthers’ lack of size is a major issue

The Panthers escaped with a narrow victory on Tuesday, but it came in spite of their lack of size and rebounding. Not having Federiko at their disposal certainly didn’t help, but both factors are still an issue when he’s on the court. This creates matchup issues that become more apparent during March and can potentially sink Pitt’s season down the line. 

Mississippi State dominated the Panthers both on the glass and in the paint. The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle 49-28 with 18 of them coming offensively, resulting in 13 second-chance points. They also scored 30 points in the paint as opposed to the Panthers’ 13. 

Pitt rebounded well for most of the season, but they’ve struggled as of late. The Panthers suddenly can’t contain their opponents on the boards and it’s created a disadvantage for them on a game-to-game basis that didn’t exist earlier in the year. Whether it’s a matter of playing with added physicality or focusing more on technique, Pitt cannot advance with a lackluster presence on the boards.

The Panthers’ lack of size is also something they can’t fix. Federiko and first-year forward Guillermo Diaz Graham can hold their own defensively in the right matchup, but both players are still inexperienced and there is little help behind them on the roster. It’s also resulted in mismatches offensively for Pitt that renders inside scoring obsolete.

The Panthers are capable of working around those shortcomings, but it also provides them with much less room for error moving forward. 

Pitt’s defense finds their footing

The Panthers finished the season with a stretch of uninspiring defensive performances against teams such as Notre Dame and Duke. Pitt ran into its fair share of struggles on that side of the ball all year, but a strong showing against a poor Mississippi State offense could help build momentum at the perfect time. 

The Panthers held the Bulldogs to 59 points on 38.1% shooting from the field and 26.1% shooting from three-point range. It was the lowest point total for a Pitt opponent since Feb. 7 against Louisville. Pitt also forced 14 turnovers along with seven steals, which it converted into 17 points on the other end. 

The Panthers showed renewed energy and fight on the defensive end as well, drawing multiple offensive fouls and diving for loose balls while wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Declaring that the defense finally found their footing is a bit premature, but perhaps the tournament environment is all that they needed. 

Pitt will face No. 6 Iowa State in the Round of 64 on Friday. Tipoff is at 3:10 p.m. and coverage will air on truTV.