Preview | Pitt takes on Xavier for a chance at Sweet 16


AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Pittsburgh guard Jamarius Burton is fouled by Iowa State guard Tamin Lipsey during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 17, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C.

By Jermaine Sykes, Senior Staff Writer

Coming off back-to-back hard-nosed, defensive battles in their first two games of the NCAA tournament, No. 11 Pitt men’s basketball faces a completely different challenge in their second round game against No. 3 Xavier. 

While Xavier is an unfamiliar opponent, the team is led by a familiar coach. Head coach Sean Miller played point guard at Pitt for four seasons from 1987 to 1992. While Pitt flirted with the idea of bringing Miller back as a head coach, he said he’d like to keep his coaching and playing careers separate.

“Some of the greatest years of my life were my years at Pitt,” Miller said. “But I think it’s simpler to keep them as memories.”

Miller’s Xavier squad narrowly defeated No. 14 seed Kennesaw State in round one. The Musketeers overcame a second-half deficit and now take on Miller’s alma mater. 

Last Sunday, the Panthers locked up the No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament in their first appearance since 2016. They defeated No. 11 seed Mississippi State in the First Four and then No. 6 seed Iowa State in round one to advance to the round of 32.

But a repeat of their dominant defensive performance against the Cyclones isn’t likely against a 26-win Xavier squad. If the Panthers want to slow down Xavier’s offense, they will need another dominant performance from their first-year forward Guillermo Diaz Graham.

Diaz Graham’s role increased mightily in the tournament with the injury of sophomore center Federiko Federiko. Diaz Graham posted an all-around performance against the Cyclones with nine points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Diaz Graham’s defense played a big role in the Panthers’ commanding defensive effort on Friday where they jumped out to a 22-2 run to start the game vs. the Cyclones. 

With Federiko back, his presence will help take stress off Diaz Graham and add a much needed presence in the middle against Xavier. 

“Fede, he is a force,” graduate student guard Nike Sibande said. “Obviously everybody knows he has been dealing with an injury, so to get him back on the floor, man, it shows a testament to his character and who he is as a person. He persevered through that and was able to come out and impact the game at a very high level.”

The Cyclones struggled from three point land, shooting two of 21 from behind the arc. The lack of shooting ability combined with the early lead gave the Panthers the advantage. 

But the Musketeers are a different team. The Musketeers shoot 39.5% from three, which ranks No. 2 in the country.

The key to this matchup is the shot making ability of the Panthers. During the season the Panthers offense could be top heavy at times. But so far this postseason, two of Pitt’s most prolific offensive players, graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and junior forward Blake Hinson, aren’t performing to their usual levels. If they can regain their form, along with output from Sibande, the Panthers are good enough to keep up with the Musketeers.

Defensively, the Panthers have their hands full. Xavier has five scorers to average double digit points per game, four of them averaging 14 or more. Led by graduate student guard Souley Boum with 16.5 points per game, the Musketeers boast the No. 12 ranked offense in the nation with 81.4 points per game.

Pitt’s players made it clear prior to Sunday’s game that Xavier is significantly more threatening on offense than their prior two opponents. As a team, the Musketeers rank No. 6 nationally in field goal percentage at 49.37%. 

“They’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country percentage-wise,” Jamarius Burton, a graduate student guard, said. “They have a lot of different guys who can shoot the basketball. So there’s going to be some guys that we’re going to have to respect on the floor as opposed to other opponents.”

The Panthers will have to contain the Musketeers high-powered offense, or match them with similar offensive output. 

The odds of both are questionable, but the Panthers’ hounding defense on Friday shows that they can attack an aggressive offense. They will have to do so in order to contain Boum and company.

The winner of Sunday’s matchup will move on to play No. 2 Texas in Kansas City on Friday.