Men’s Basketball: Sluggish Panthers host bottom-dwelling Seminoles


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt returns to the court Sunday following a much-needed eight day break between games. 

The team is mired in a stretch in which it has lost four of its past six games, which dropped the Panthers out of the top-25 rankings and into fifth place among Atlantic Coast Conference teams.

The Panthers (20-6, 8-5 ACC) host Florida State (15-11, 6-8 ACC) at the Petersen Events Center at 6 p.m. Sunday, and the Seminoles also find themselves in a rough patch with only two wins against six losses in the last month of play. Florida State, which peaked in the top 25 of the Ratings Percentage Index rankings, now ranks No. 61.

While the Seminoles’ recent slate of games included tests at then-No. 18 Duke and against North Carolina, Florida State also fell further into the middle of the conference’s pack with losses against Maryland, North Carolina State and Miami.

Meanwhile, all five of Pitt’s conference losses have come to the four teams above the Panthers in the league standings — Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Syracuse twice — which has elicited questions about their legitimacy as a top team. That doubt is reflected in both the Associated Press and coaches polls omitting them from their respective top 25 rankings.

Pitt’s eight-day break should not only help the Panthers recover from narrow losses to No. 1 Syracuse and North Carolina last week, but also aid their efforts to get healthy. Team leaders Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna are currently contending with nagging injuries, as is custom for players when the conference season becomes a grind in its middle parts.

Patterson’s struggles offensively in the last six games reflect Pitt’s losing record during that span. Since scoring 28 points on 8-of-14 shooting against Maryland Jan. 25, the redshirt senior from Lancaster, Pa., is averaging 14 points per game on 29.2 percent shooting from the field.

Patterson still leads the Panthers in scoring at 17 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting next to 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest, but his performance of late has not been as effective as when he was shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.

Florida State is led by a trio of players scoring in double-digits on a per-game basis. Guards Ian Miller and Aaron Thomas both score 13.6 points per game, and each boasts a shooting percentage north of 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line.

Down low, senior forward Okaro White leads the Seminoles in rebounding with 6.6 boards per game alongside his 12.2 point-per-game scoring average.

As Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon constantly stresses, the Panthers want to control the rebounding margin of Sunday’s game. Through 26 games, Pitt ranks No. 19 nationally by outrebounding its opposition by 6.5 boards per game.

The Panthers’ average advantage on the glass is nearly triple that of the Seminoles, who outrebound their opponents by just 2.2 rebounds each game. Because of that, Zanna figures to have a shot at picking up another double-double in a season in which he’s scored 12.4 points per game and ranks third in the ACC with 7.9 rebounds per game.

Measuring at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Zanna’s size will pose a matchup problem for a Florida State frontline that relies primarily on athleticism. In particular, Zanna’s speed gives him an advantage gainst starting center and fellow Nigeria native Michael Ojo (7-foot-1, 290 pounds).

Pitt likely isn’t a team on the NCAA Tournament’s bubble, with most “bracketologists” projecting Pitt to receive somewhere between a No. 7 and No. 9 seed in March Madness, but the Panthers need to solidify that position with a strong finish in their final five games of the regular season against lesser competition starting with Florida State Sunday.