Men’s Basketball: Panthers end regular season with key bout at Clemson

Mens Basketball: Panthers end regular season with key bout at Clemson

Jamie Dixon is in an unfamiliar position.

In Dixon’s tenure as Pitt’s head coach, seldom have final games of the regular season mattered, and they even more rarely meant “win and you’re in” or “lose and you go home.”

But Pitt has dropped four of its past six games, and the Panthers (22-8, 10-7 ACC) are on bubble alert heading into Saturday’s 4 p.m. showdown against Clemson (19-10, 10-7 ACC) at Littlejohn Coliseum.

Guard Cameron Wright said the team is well aware of the situation in front of them. 

“We’re in a must-win situation,” Wright said.

With the ACC Tournament next week, the Panthers’ seed will not only be affected by the outcome of Saturday’s Pitt-Clemson game, but the Panthers could use some help from a Syracuse team that has dropped four of the past five decisions when the Orange takes on Florida State at 2 p.m.

The winner of the Pitt-Clemson game will take the No. 5 seed in the tournament, but if Clemson beats Pitt and Syracuse beats Florida State, Pitt is the No. 6 seed. If Clemson beats Pitt and Florida State beats Syracuse, Pitt is the No. 7 seed.

“We’re well aware of the predicament we put ourselves in,” Wright said. “It’s March Madness for a reason.”

On Jan. 14 at the Petersen Events Center, Dixon’s squad, then with a 16-2 record, crushed Clemson 76-43, marking Pitt’s fourth-highest margin of victory in conference play in school history. Dixon brushed off the win, saying what’s passed is passed. 

“That has a very little impact on the game on Saturday,” Dixon said.

Clemson’s leading scorer and All-ACC hopeful K.J. McDaniels sat in foul trouble for most of the game and was held to 11 points. McDaniels is scoring 16.9 points per contest and leads the conference in blocks per game (2.8).

“We got out to a good start and things just fell our way,” Dixon added. “I saw a couple of loose balls that ended up 3-pointers for us. That’s how sometimes those things occur. That’s a long time ago and was two months ago, so that’s clear to our guys.”

The Tigers own the second-best scoring defense in the country, allowing 56.7 points per game, and they average six blocks per game.

Talib Zanna led all scorers with 22 points in the first matchup, comprised of mostly two-handed dunks and layups. But with McDaniels back, the Panthers could have trouble getting easy looks in the paint, and they may have to rely on another spark plug for offense.

Josh Newkirk has been that safety valve in Pitt’s last two games, scoring 28 combined points.

Against North Carolina State, Newkirk made five of five shots from beyond the arc. He has now made his last seven, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Sean Miller did it in 1991.

“I’m just going to do whatever it takes to stay on the floor,” Newkirk said.

Through Pitt’s recent stretch of tough losses, injury has been a factor, but many players seem to be past the recovery stage of their respective afflictions.

Zanna was hit with an ankle sprain in Pitt’s 48-45 loss to Virginia, Lamar Patterson sustained a burden to his right wrist in Pitt’s 59-55 win at Miami, Chris Jones has missed practice because of a season-long injury to his right thumb and Michael Young has battled a lower-back injury for the past several weeks, a pain he hasn’t been able to completely shake.

The freshman forward is near-recovered, though, according to Dixon.

Dixon said Young has practiced the past two days and that he’s visited the doctor for his issue. He is expected to start at Clemson.

Pitt is 6-2 on the road this season. Whether the Panthers can sustain that success at Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday, though, might determine their postseason schedule.