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Despite relatively light non-conference schedule, Pitt will still be challenged

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For years, many Pitt fans have been begging the program for a more difficult non-conference schedule. I've generally been of the mindset that there are enough hurdles in the ACC that you don't want to schedule too roughly. But I also understand the desire from fans that sit through the non-conference games at the Pete to want to see better teams.

This year, however, it's hard to argue that a lighter schedule wasn't warranted.

Pitt scheduled lightly and, well, they should have. The team's losses are well documented. With Cam Johnson unwilling to sit around for a rebuilding act, the Panthers are replacing all five starters. Not only that, but the bench will be almost entirely new as well with several offseason transfers. Pitt is not only throwing new players out on the court but most of them are younger and will be forced to play more minutes than they will likely be ready for.

The Panthers' non-con slate was released this week and, in case you missed it, here it is, dates omitted:

  • at Navy (Veterans Classic)
  • Montana (Legends Classic)
  • UC-Santa Barbara (Legends Classic)
  • Penn State/Oklahoma State/Or Texas A&M (Legends Classic - Brooklyn)
  • Penn State/Oklahoma State/Or Texas A&M (Legends Classic - Brooklyn)
  • Lehigh
  • High Point
  • Duquesne (City Game/Consol)
  • Mount St. Mary's
  • West Virginia
  • McNeese State
  • Delaware State
  • Towson

Only three major-conference foes are there and only one, West Virginia, was ranked in USA Today's early preseason Top 25 for this upcoming season.

Most years, this would have the look of a 10-2 type of year. This season? That would appear to be a supreme success.

I'm not sure Pitt will be favored in any of the games against power-conference teams. Even Penn State, a potential opponent returns most of their team from a 15-18 season last year.

Then you've got Duquesne. Ordinarily, picking the Panthers over the Dukes would be a no-brainer. But Pitt lost last year even with an experienced group and possibly even two NBA players. In other words, counting that as a victory is no guarantee as it has been most seasons.

Things could even get off to a rough start for the Panthers playing a game against Navy. Navy was 16-16 last year in the Patriot League and Pitt has to not only play them in their first game of the year, but it's on the road in the Veterans Classic. Last year, Navy hung with Ohio State in that game before losing by a respectable ten points.

Even more potential pitfalls exist with 20-win Lehigh, Towson, and Mount St. Mary's teams - the last of which made the NCAA Tournament. Most years, those wouldn't be considered real challenges. They should be this season, however.

Two more things concern me with the outlook for the non-conference schedule. First, Pitt gave up a lot of big leads last year after getting out to big starts. Now, I think they'll have less of a problem with that this season just because I don't expect to see them out ahead of teams by 20 points with much regularity. But Kevin Stallings found it difficult to keep guys interested and if they have any kind of success, you have to wonder if that will again be a problem.

Second, the Panthers' defense last year left a lot to be desired. Pitt allowed at least 75 points in seven of their 13 games last season and Stallings isn't known as a defensive mastermind.

Many people will point to the roster last year and just say that was a disinterested bunch. Perhaps. But if the team frustrates Stallings again this year and he reverts to some of the tactics we saw last year with challenging players in the media, etc., will these guys stay motivated?

I'm not calling for all out disaster here and if everything breaks their way, I could even see as many as nine wins before the ACC contests. Sorry, but I've seen way too much basketball to declare these guys absolutely can't beat teams like Navy and Lehigh. And while these guys are new and largely inexperienced, counting them completely out against mid-majors at this point is silly. That said, I'm not sure we would be too surprised with six wins, either. If nothing else, this year's non-conference season will prove to be a much more interesting one than in years past.

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