Fearsome foes: Pitt men’s basketball’s five toughest teams


The University of North Carolina men's basketball team will be one of Pitt's toughest opponents this season. Pitt News File Photo

By Joe Rokicki / Staff Writer

After a difficult season one year ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team’s road to rebounding won’t get any easier.

With the 2015-16 college basketball season imminent, the Panthers will return to the hardwood trying to improve upon a 19-15 overall finish last season. Pitt will feature several new faces, including transfers Sterling Smith from Coppin State and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa from Richmond, plus freshman Damon Wilson.

The Panthers will begin their season in Okinawa, Japan, as part of the Armed Forces Classic on Friday, Nov. 13, against the No. 10 Gonzaga Bulldogs. Although conference play is a few months away, the ACC is packed with a gauntlet of premiere talent. Here’s a look at the Panthers’ five most dangerous foes this upcoming season.

5) Florida State Seminoles

Pitt at Florida State – Jan. 23, 4 p.m.

Defensive guard play was a serious weakness for Pitt last season, highlighted by North Carolina State’s Anthony “Cat” Barber torching of the Panthers for 34 points in the ACC Tournament in March. The Seminoles will sport a cast of capable guards, including five-star freshman Dwayne Bacon, the only five-star recruit to sign with an ACC team other than Duke, which signed four. Bacon will play opposite sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who averaged 14.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in his freshman season. Senior Devon Bookert shot 39.3 percent from three-point range last season and could pose as a serious threat behind the arc.

4) Louisville Cardinals

Pitt at Louisville – Jan. 14, 9 p.m.

Louisville at Pitt – Feb. 24, 8 p.m.

It’s been a tumultuous offseason for the Louisville Cardinals basketball program, mostly due to the media’s coverage of recruiting allegations. On the court, the Cardinals will look much different in 2015-16, especially without Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear, now all playing professionally. However, the Cardinals added three four-star recruits in Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding, plus two transfers in Damion Lee from Drexel and Trey Lewis from Cleveland State.

Lee and Lewis averaged 21.4 and 16.3 points per game at their former schools, respectively, and will provide Louisville with the scoring necessary to replace Rozier and Blackshear. The transfers will join sophomore guard Quentin Snider, sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku and junior forward/center Mangok Mathiang as the Cardinals’ projected starters in 2015-16.

3) Duke Blue Devils

Duke at Pitt – Feb. 24, 2 p.m.

Duke enters the season without most of its national championship starting lineup. Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones all departed for the NBA, and Quinn Cook graduated. But the Blue Devils replenished with four five-star recruits, Brandon Ingram, Derryck Thornton, Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard. Sophomore guard Grayson Allen could maintain his role as a sixth man off the bench.

Pitt will have the edge in experience when these two teams tip off in late February, as Duke holds one of the nation’s youngest rosters. At first glance, this match up could come down to guard play and three-point shooting. Sterling Smith could rise as the hero for Pitt if he can nail key shots in this backcourt brawl, a threat that Pitt’s squad didn’t possess a year ago.

2)  Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia at Pitt – Feb. 6, noon

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett is perhaps the most efficient coach in college basketball, as his constricting defense allowed an average of 51.5 points per game last year. The Cavaliers will boast an experienced lineup, even without prolific shooting guard Justin Anderson and last season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year Darion Atkins. The Cavaliers added Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson, who will serve as a solid reserve player off the bench.

Virginia’s starting five will likely consist of junior guard London Perrantes, senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, sophomore guard Marial Shayok, senior forward Anthony Gill and senior center Mike Tobey. Perrantes finished twelfth in the nation last season with an assist to turnover ratio of 3.02. Pitt’s James Robinson finished sixth with a ratio of 3.11. Gill poses a serious interior threat, as he led the Cavaliers in rebounds, 6.5 per game, and shooting percentage, 58.2 percent in 2014-15.

1) University of North Carolina

Pitt at North Carolina – Feb. 14, 1 p.m.

The Panthers will travel to Chapel Hill for a Valentine’s Day rematch against the Tar Heels. North Carolina will return four of its five starters from last season, as shooting guard J.P. Tokoto entered the NBA Draft. Senior guard Marcus Paige, sophomore guard Justin Jackson, senior forward Brice Johnson, junior forward Kennedy Meeks and sophomore forward Theo Pinson will likely comprise the Tar Heels’ starting five to begin the season. North Carolina’s strength lies in its McDonald’s All-American bench, as the Tar Heels have a capable reserve at each position. If the names Isaiah Hicks, Joel Berry, Joel James, Kenny Williams and Nate Britt don’t sound familiar just yet, they certainly will come February.

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