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No. 2 Duke will provide the latest barometer for Pitt’s basketball team

Tonight, the Pitt men’s basketball team will face No. 2 Duke. While they aren’t expected to win, the 9:00 p.m. contest on ESPN is just the latest measuring stick for the Panthers.

Almost entirely, Pitt has competed well this season. Three of the Panthers’ six losses have come by a combined eight points and two others, against Syracuse and West Virginia, were competitive contests with stretches of inefficiency ultimately doing the team in. The lone blowout came against a talented North Carolina team that overwhelmed the Panthers on a day when the team shot a miserable 30.6% from the field. For the most part, Pitt has been right there.

Pitt has even competed with very good teams, mind you. They lost by one on the road to a ranked Iowa team and just recently toppled No. 11 Florida State in an upset win. They also lost by only six to a Top 15 NC State team. But the Tar Heels are better than those teams and probably by a good margin, which helped explain the absolute domination in that contest.

Pitt faces what is likely an even stiffer challenge tonight in Duke. The obvious storyline sure to be touted is head coach Jeff Capel facing his alma mater and former employer Duke. But the Blue Devils are far too good of a team to make this about him. Make no mistake, squaring off against what could be the best team in college basketball is the real lede in the story for tonight’s game.

Without a four-point misstep against Syracuse last week, the Blue Devils would have come into this game as the No. 1 team. Duke has defeated virtually everyone they’ve played and that is impressive because of the extremely difficult schedule they’ve played.

How good is Duke, exactly? They have already faced six teams in the Top 25 and four were ranked in the top ten at the time they played. Only one, a two-point defeat to then No. 3 Gonzaga, has resulted in a loss. The Blue Devils aren’t only coming into this game battle tested, they’ve been battle tested since November when they faced three top ten teams in the span of 16 days.

Looking at a Tale of the Tape in this situation would be a fruitless activity and Duke is the far superior team. But two particularly ugly stats for Pitt tonight could be the number of points they allow and how they fare on the glass.

Offensively, Duke averages 89.2 points per game, good for third in the nation. They also average 43.5 rebounds per contest, which is second in the nation. Included in that number is a whopping 14.6 offensive rebounds per contest, which is impressive given that the team is one of the better shooting teams around, making nearly 50% of their shots. Thus, even when they miss, they have a solid chance of beating you for the rebound and offensive rebounding by their opponents is something that’s been a problem for an undersized Pitt team.

If Pitt wants to keep it close, they’ll not only need to hope Duke has an off shooting night but also corral rebounds to avoid giving up second chances. The bad news is that neither is terribly likely given the Blue Devils’ play this season. Duke has been too good too consistently and while you never say never, the odds are clearly in their favor to win tonight.

Like most of you, I’m not expecting a win here. And while a blowout loss would hardly be embarrassing, if Pitt is able to avoid that, it would be somewhat impressive. I’ll be watching from the vantage point of just seeing how Pitt responds in certain situations. Those are the things that can show some growth among the players.

For instance, can they avoid the long scoring droughts that have been a problem? When Duke inevitably makes a run, can they keep it from getting out of hand? How will Pitt’s big men play defensively against a tough frontcourt led by Zion Williamson? Just as importantly, can Pitt’s bigs stay out of foul trouble? How will they handle the nerves of playing on a big stage in prime time? Those are the things I’ll be watching for.

Regardless of how the game shapes up, it’s all going to be must-watch TV and I’m hoping to see the Panthers take more steps toward being able to compete against the elite teams.

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 and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.