Pitt Panthers: 2014 NCAA Tournament Preview - Florida Gators

The Pittsburgh Panthers (26-9, 11-7) absolutely dismantled the Colorado Buffaloes (23-12, 10-8) on Thursday afternoon. They now must try and maintain that momentum against the top-seeded Florida Gators (33-2, 18-0).

While the Panthers absolutely throttled the Buffaloes from start to finish on Thursday, the Gators allowed the Great Danes of Albany, New York to hang around a little longer than they would have liked. Pitt fans are hoping that their team will play with a sense of purpose, perhaps to prove to that they belong. Although, if you talk to some of the players, they know that they do.

Florida fans are hoping that the last 10 minutes of their game against Albany woke up the sleeping giant, and that they'll come out sharp and motivated against, perhaps, an under-seeded Panthers club. Let's highlight a couple of key matchups, and highlight how both teams will try to win the game.

Zanna vs. Young:

Senior forward Talib Zanna is peaking, if there is such a thing for a senior, at the right time. He nearly outscored Colorado by himself in the first half last game, 16 - 18. He'll need to have another strong performance against another stellar senior forward in UF's Patric Young.

Zanna is averaging 13.1 points per game (2nd on team) and 8.6 rebounds per game (leads team). He's shooting 58.3% from the field, and has been a monster for Pitt as of late. At 70.8% at the rim, Zanna leads the team in field goal percentage at point-blank range. He also takes 63.2% of all his shots around the basket, and has become very good at tip-ins as of late.

In the month of March, Zanna is averaging 15.3 points per game and 11 rebounds per game. He pulled down a career-high 21 rebounds against UNC in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals, and has shot at least 60% in every game in March.

Young is averaging 11.1 points per game (4th on team) and 6.2 rebounds per game (leads team). He's a little bit more versatile than Zanna, as he'll step out and take mid-range jumpers. In fact, 52.7% of his attempts are jumpers where he converts at a decent clip of 43.1%. Make no mistake about it; he is a man around the basket. He takes 42.7% of his attempts at the rim, and he finishes 71.4% of those opportunities.

It's going to be a battle in the paint between these two. The winner will likely give their respective teams an important advantage. The Panthers are going to hit the glass hard, and limit the Gators from securing second-chance opportunities. Florida is going to try to execute the same plan.

Patterson vs. Prather:

There was a time in which senior forward Lamar Patterson could very well have been the ACC Player of the Year. The same could be said about UF's senior forward Casey Prather.

Patterson stuffs the stat-sheet to the tune of 17.4 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists per game. He is exceptional at keeping his dribble alive and making plays for himself and his teammates off penetration.

You can't ignore him on the perimeter; he shoots 39.7% from beyond the arc. Patterson is the definition of a playmaker; he ranks 77th in Division I in assist rate, which is an impressive figure given that he isn't a point guard.

Prather isn't the playmaker that Patterson is, but is a better overall scorer. He is relentless going to the basket, where he takes 58.1% of his attempts - converts at 73.8%. On two-point jumpers, Prather converts at 43.1%, and is a 40% three-point shooter. There simply isn't a spot on the floor that he can't score, and he ranks in the top-50 in the nation in both eFG% (61.2%) and TS% (63.5%).

As the leaders of their respective teams, whichever player is able to impose their will on the other (might not guard each other for entire game) will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.

Other Matchups:

Point guard play is very important at this time of year. Both teams have really good ones. Pitt sophomore James Robinson is known for his on-ball defense and exceptional assist to turnover ratio. UF senior Scottie Wilbekin is experienced, and has increased his level of play as of late. He has scored in double-figures the last five games while averaging just 1.4 turnovers per game over that same stretch.

Neither is a great shooter, Robinson is shooting just 41.1% on his field goals for the season, and an underwhelming 35.8% on three-pointers, while Wilbekin is shooting just 39.7% on the season, but a respectable 39.6% from beyond the arc.

Robinson is going to have to be exceptional on the defensive end (he usually is), while being opportunistic on the offensive end to keep Wilbekin honest.

Team Philosophies:

As I highlighted above, both teams like to crash the offensive boards (both in top-50 in offensive rebounding percentage) and limit their opponents on doing the same (both rank in the top-70 in defensive offensive rebounding percentage). The Panthers are better in both categories.

However, the Gators are the 5th best D-I team in defensive rating, limiting their opponents to just 89.8 points per 100 possessions. Pitt is 25th in the nation, holding teams to 95.8 points per 100 possessions.

This will no doubt be a defensive battle, and both teams play at nearly the same tempo (63 offensive possessions per game).

I'd look for the Panthers to try and run like they did against Colorado. A lot of their players seem to feed off easy transition baskets, particularly junior guard Cameron Wright.

I expect a close game that might come down to free throws. If you're a Pitt fan, that might not be the most encouraging thing to hear. With that said, Florida shoots just 66.4% from the charity stripe - 286th in the country. The Panthers are much better at 71.3% from the line - 129th in the nation.

Predicted outcome on KenPom: 65 - 61 in favor of UF with a 32% chance of pulling the upset.

Pitt has moved up to 14th on KenPom's overall ratings, while the Gators are currently 2nd.  These teams are clearly closer than their seeds would suggest, and most Panther fans know that.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author @Stephen_Gertz

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