Basketball Preview: Visits from Duke and Syracuse highlight Pitt’s home schedule

By Mark Powell / Staff Writer

As Pitt transitions into one of the best basketball conferences in the country, the Panthers face perennial powerhouses on their path to a second-straight NCAA tournament berth.

Nonconference play

The Panthers were criticized last year for their weak nonconference schedule, and it may have contributed to their low seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The slate of teams does not look any more difficult this year.  

Pitt does not face a real test until late November, when the Panthers travel to Brooklyn for the Progressive Legends Classic to face Texas Tech University and either Stanford University or Univeristy of Houston. None of the teams made it to the NCAA Tournament last year. 

Stanford played in the Natioanl Invitation Tournament, where the Cardinal lost in the second round. 

The Panthers come back from the Legends Classic for a pair of regional rivalry games that are more fun for the fans than they are a challenge to the players. 

Pitt plays Duquesne in the City Game and Penn State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in the same week. The games should be heated, but a loss to either would be a disappointing setback in the late stages of nonconference play.

Pitt will face its first tournament-caliber team on Dec. 17, when the Panthers face the Cincinnati Bearcats in New York for the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. 

Led by head coach Mick Cronin, the Bearcats have made the NCAA Tournament three straight years, and there is no reason to believe they won’t be in that position this season. This game is a vital test for the Panthers as they head into ACC play.

Conference play

Pitt begins conference play with two games in three days against comparable foes North Carolina State and Maryland on Jan. 4 and Jan. 6, respectively. Both teams are mid-level ACC opponents and could be rude awakenings for a Panthers team that hasn’t faced much legitimate competition. 

The Panthers’ toughest road test of the season will be playing at Syracuse on Jan. 18. The Orange, led by returning forward and ACC Preseason Player of the Year C.J. Fair, are ranked No. 8 in the preseason coaches’ poll and are expected to be in the top tier of the ACC standings. 

The Carrier Dome is one of the loudest and largest environments in college basketball. Games like these will determine Pitt’s fate in its first season in the ACC.

Pitt’s biggest home game of the 2013-2014 season is undoubtedly the matchup against Duke on Jan. 27. The game is expected to have a similar atmosphere to last year’s upset home victory over Syracuse. 

The Blue Devils come into the season ranked No. 4, boosted by the fact that head coach Mike Krzyzewski landed one of the top recruiting classes in the country, led by freshman sensation Jabari Parker from Chicago.

The Panthers have a brutal two-game stretch in mid-February that could likely determine the success of their season.

Pitt will play Syracuse at home on Feb. 12 and then travel to North Carolina three days later. The Tar Heels, led by head coach Roy Williams, enter the season ranked No. 11 and are expected to compete for the ACC regular season title.