The Pitt News

Upcoming basketball season looks promising for Panthers

By Alex Wise / Staff Writer

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As I prepare myself for college basketball to start on Friday, a number of questions run through my mind. Most of them involve Arizona and whether or not they can find a way to blow the Pac-12 title, which they’ve basically already been handed. But, above all, I’ve been trying to figure out where Pitt fits into this year’s ACC.

Nearly every publication has predicted Pitt will finish sixth, behind Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville and Syracuse, but I’m not convinced this will be the case. Louisville and Duke will be legitimate contenders; that I won’t argue. But the Pitt fan in me sees flaws in the remaining three.

Starting in reverse, I don’t think Syracuse will be better than Pitt. Had Tyler Ennis not provided the most heartbreaking moment in the last decade of Pitt basketball — save for Kemba Walker shattering Gary McGhee’s ankles, that is — Pitt would’ve split the season series with the Orange. But Ennis isn’t around to save the day for Syracuse anymore. Instead, they’ll rely on a new freshman point guard — Kaleb Joseph — who isn’t nearly as prepared for the college game as Ennis was last year. Pitt’s steady play at the point and its top-20 defense, coupled with a more balanced offensive attack in the absence of Lamar Patterson, makes the Panthers a more complete team.

Next is Virginia, in whom I don’t believe. Go-to guy Joe Harris is gone to the pros, as is last year’s leading rebounder Akil Mitchell. The same argument has been made for Pitt losing Patterson and Talib Zanna, but Pitt returns much more depth and experience than Virginia. Non-conference games with VCU and Harvard could give us an early glimpse into the Cavaliers’ strength, but I think Pitt will win more critical games in conference play, as well as the head-to-head matchup in Charlottesville, Va., on Feb. 16.

My reasons for bringing North Carolina down a few pegs are based both in history and in the present. I’m as big a believer as anybody that the past is the past and that this is a new team, but it seems that every time UNC is billed as a Final Four contender, they have an off year. They’ll always be a top-10 team to start the season, but since ever Tyler Hansbrough left in 2009 they never seem to be around at the end.

Talking tangibly, though, I can’t remember a time that Roy Williams will rely as heavily on freshmen as he will this year. Granted, it’s an impressive crop, and returning point guard Marcus Paige is, deservedly, a preseason first-team All-American. However,a the rest of the veterans — J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson, namely — have underachieved since arriving in Chapel Hill. The talent is there, whether or not it’s utilized — especially in the low post — will dictate the Tar Heels’ season.

Will the Panthers finish in the top three in the ACC? Probably not. But Pitt is a deeper, more balanced team than most in the ACC. They’ll lose some games. I’ll bite through my fingers during the Syracuse-Louisville-UNC-Virginia-Syracuse stretch in February. But all things considered, I’m thinking optimistically for the Panthers: 25-7, including an appearance in the Maui Invitational final against Arizona and an ACC-Big Ten Challenge win over Indiana at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

The journey to the tourney starts tomorrow at 7 p.m. I expect to see the Zoo filled because this could be the start of a very fun season for the Panthers.

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Upcoming basketball season looks promising for Panthers