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Uphill battle: Pitt faces gauntlet in upcoming schedule

By Alex Wise / Staff Writer

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Six days, three games against top-ranked opponents.

That’s what awaits the Pitt men’s basketball team over the course of the next week. The Panthers get a rematch with No. 9 Louisville on the road before a home tilt with No. 12 North Carolina in the Petersen Events Center’s final marquee matchup of the season. Capping off the torturous stretch is a road trip to Charlottesville, birthplace of the great Dave Matthews Band, for a Monday showdown with No. 2 Virginia.

And let’s not forget the road rivalry game at Syracuse, which seeks revenge after dropping the first of two games to Pitt on Saturday.

Ugh.

If I still tried to think coherently about this basketball team, I’d say this week doesn’t look promising. But I stopped trying to make sense of this Pitt team when it followed an overtime loss to Virginia Tech with a win over a top-10 team (Notre Dame) on Jan. 21 before squeaking one out at home against a sub -.500 squad from the Northeast Conference (Bryant) on Feb. 2. If there was any measure of consistency to this team, I might not be so negative. 

But there’s not, so I am.

Things kick off Wednesday at my favorite arena in the U.S. Admittedly, I’ve never been within 300 miles of Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, but the fact that it’s called the KFC Yum! Center makes it the best place ever. It also makes me hungry.

Back to basketball: Pitt is no match for Louisville athletically, especially inside. Forward Montrezl Harrell is uncontrollable when he decides to be, as evidenced by his 22-point effort against North Carolina last week, and Pitt doesn’t have the size or the muscle to compete in that regard. To Pitt’s credit, the team held the Cardinals to just three total offensive rebounds last time — a feat that Pitt must repeat if it wants any shot at a win.

But interior play wasn’t the difference maker in the two teams’ first go-round: Louisville guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones combined for 43 points, including 5-8 from the 3-point line. If the Panthers can defend the perimeter and limit Louisville’s second chances (and maybe shoot a little better than 25 percent from behind the arc this time), they might just have a shot at knocking off another top-10 team.

North Carolina is the most unpredictable of the bunch, though in theory it seems like the team most likely for Pitt to knock off. Playing at home after wins against Notre Dame and Syracuse will make the Pete an insane environment that would be tough for any team to enter.

But Carolina has been solid in its ACC play. Its only losses are by one to Notre Dame, in overtime to Louisville and a 75-64 loss to Virginia. In other words, they’ve been competitive with the best. Even at home, Pitt will need a special effort to bring home a win.

Finally, Tony Bennett’s pack-line system has Virginia surrendering an incredibly low 50.7 points per game. This is scary to a Pitt fan, as the Panthers’ offense tends to stagnate at times. Any team that goes long stretches without generating offense, as Pitt does, will struggle to score against the Cavaliers — who, on Saturday, held Louisville to 25 points below their season scoring average. Justin Anderson, one of Virginia’s key players, is likely out after just having had surgery on a fractured finger. But don’t expect his 13 points per game to go unfilled.

And then we get to go play basketball in a football stadium against a bunch of lazy kids who sit in a zone all day because their crazy old coach tells them to.

It’s a tough run. But, should the Panthers survive it, their tournament hopes will skyrocket.

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Uphill battle: Pitt faces gauntlet in upcoming schedule