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Pitt basketball heads into conference season with promise and intrigue

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference season for the men’s basketball team ended with a 68-54 win over Colgate last Saturday. The Panthers finished at 10-3 and already have two more victories than the team had all of last season.

I came away impressed with how Pitt took the non-conference portion of the season by the horns, mostly dominating it. Yes, there was the upset loss to Niagara but many more experienced teams have been similarly upset this year. The Panthers lost that game by a single point, lost on the road to a Top 15 Iowa team by a point, and lost the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia by ten. Three losses, two of them on the road in difficult environments, by a total of 12 points? Realistically, the Panthers are two baskets short of being ranked in the Top 25.

That sure beats losing by 31 to Penn State.

Further, the dominant wins they had were what really stood out. Pitt managed eight non-conference season wins last year and they were often nailbiters. This season, the Panthers had a few close ones but won by an average of nearly 21 points per game.

When you add it all up, it would be shocking if the team was not only more competitive in the ACC season this year, but significantly more competitive.

That doesn’t mean Pitt will come home with a slew of conference wins or even finish in the middle of the pack. The outlook, however, looks much brighter than it did even at the onset of the season. Pitt famously went winless in the ACC last year and given what we’ve seen from the team this season, that seems virtually impossible. These guys will continue to get better and taking a handful of games doesn’t feel far-fetched at all. Playing on the road, Pitt took a ranked Iowa team to the limit and while the Hawkeyes were clearly ranked too high, they are still better than some of the teams in the ACC.

Even beyond that, I’d encourage fans to take the conference season as a whole with less of a focus on wins and losses. Those are important but the games will be closer this season and that will be encouraging. The Panthers didn’t win a single ACC game but just as troubling is that most were not terribly competitive.

Of the team’s 18 conference games, only four were within ten points. There were 34-point and 26-point losses to Louisville. 35-point and 27-point beatdowns by Duke. A 31-point blowout loss to North Carolina. A 24-point loss to Clemson. A 29-point defeat to Virginia. A 23-point loss to Boston College, for crying out loud. That none of those are particularly easy to recall highlights just how commonplace those sorts of losses were.

Sure, Pitt was overmatched. And yes, they were playing with a ton of inexperience. But conference games are supposed to be at least somewhat close and if hardly of them ever are, that’s a sign of a real bad problem.

Expectations for wins this year should be low. Even though there’s a lot of promise with these guys, it’s still extremely difficult to look at the tough schedule ahead and arbitrarily pick out victories. But while I’m not necessarily expecting a big number of wins in the ACC season, what I am looking forward to is seeing what will be a more competitive team. And that’s because the program is clearly headed in the right direction.

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.