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Pitt hopes to keep momentum against Duke in ESPN matchup

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NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt men’s basketball team faces Duke tonight in a key ACC matchup on ESPN.

The Panthers (7-2) come into the game on a bit of a roll. Since losing their season opener to St. Francis, the Panthers have won seven of their eight games with a sole loss coming to a quality Louisville team. That first loss was a real downer but, so far, I think the team has probably slightly exceeded expectations. They won their ACC-B1G Challenge game against Northwestern and are 3-1 in the ACC with a season sweep of Syracuse.

The Duke name will almost always strike some fear into the hearts opponents. But this year’s iteration of the Blue Devils isn’t quite the same as in years past. For the first time since 2016, Duke is unranked in the AP Poll.

That this would be somewhat of a rebuild for Duke wasn’t unexpected. The Blue Devils (5-3) lost their top three scorers from last year, Tre Jones, Vernon Carey, Jr., and Cassius Stanley, to the NBA. And so far, the warning signs have been confirmed as Duke had indeed struggled a little this year. They lost both of their marquee games against Michigan State and Illinois. And in the ACC, while they’re 3-1, they are coming off of a loss to Virginia Tech and only narrowly defeated Boston College by a point prior to that.

Don’t get me wrong — this is far from a guaranteed win for Pitt. Despite playing at home, the Panthers are actually a slight underdog by about 2 12 points. Duke is still a quality team with its share of impact players — none bigger than forward Matthew Hurt, who can beat you inside and outside (19.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg, and nearly a 45% shooter from long distance). A loss here, while perhaps disappointing, would hardly be embarrassing.

The game looks to be about a tossup and you have to like the fact that the Panthers got Justin Champagnie back just in time. Champagnie’s not only back but doesn’t even look like he’s missed a step, coming off of a big 24-point, 16-rebound effort against Syracuse. Pitt should be able to hang with Duke in this one — now it’s just a matter of putting it all together and not laying an egg offensively.

Games like these are really important for the program and it reminds me of something I said way back when first got into the ACC. The Panthers are not going to be likely able to compete with Duke and North Carolina year in and year out — at least not for the foreseeable future. What they need to focus on at the moment is taking those teams out in the years that they are down — and this is one of those opportunities. Beating a Duke or North Carolina, in any year, will prove to be helpful to recruiting while also getting the fans talking about Pitt basketball a bit more. Both would be helpful.

Game time at 9 — let’s do this.

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