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Difficult stretch could be key to Panthers' season

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After pulling out three consecutive wins to get fans talking NCAA Tournament again, Pitt's basketball team enters the most difficult three-game stretch of its season starting on Wednesday.

First up will be the Louisville Cardinals. Pitt then gets North Carolina on Valentine's Day and travels to Virginia two days later. All three teams are in the Top 12 in the nation, which begs the question: Exactly who made this schedule, anyway?

Kidding aside, facing those three teams in a six-game stretch is just brutal. Things are made even harder by the fact that two of them are on the road.

The goal here, by any standard, is pretty simple. Pitt needs to grab at least one of these three games. Losing all three may not doom the Panthers entirely, but they'd need to run the table to finish with a 10-8 record and probably win an ACC Tournament game just to be in the bubble discussion. And let's be honest - how likely is it that Pitt goes on that kind of a tear in conference play? This is a team, after all, that nearly lost to Bryant after beating Notre Dame and dropped a game to Virginia Tech shortly before that.

Even if it came to that, the Panthers' final five games aren't exactly a cakewalk, either. First up is a road game against Syracuse that led much of the way before falling late in Pittsburgh. There's BC, who Pitt previously beat ... but needed overtime to do so. There's also Miami, who has beaten three ranked teams this year, including Duke on the road. Winning all of those games just seems like too much to ask. Even Florida State on the road can't be overlooked. Pitt won the first matchup at home, but the game was tied in the second half until the Panthers pulled away.

Getting back to those three heavyweights, the most winnable one appears to be North Carolina on the surface since Pitt gets the game at home. But the Tar Heels' only two road losses this year have come at the hands of No. 1 Kentucky and to Louisville (in overtime). It's safe to say that North Carolina isn't going to be intimidated by playing in Oakland.

In addition, the Tar Heels are not only one of the top scoring teams in the nation, but rank second in the entire country in rebounding, pulling in nearly 43 boards per game.

Still, Pitt desperately needs to find a way to win one of those three games. The rest of the schedule doesn't lend itself to a sweep and that's particularly true given the inconsistency issues we've seen from this team this year. Even if a sweep occurs, the resume still may not be strong enough.

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