The Pittsburgh Panthers are back dancing for the first time in seven years. While it is nice to be there now it’s time to wonder just how deep can the Panthers go. The staff over at Cardiac Hill are here to weigh in and give their predictions on how the madness of March will unfold for Pitt.
I’ve got some faith in this iteration of the Panthers. The matchup in Dayton is an interesting one; Mississippi State is among the best in the country defensively and currently ranks as the 6th best defensive unit per KENPOM. After watching Duke play Pitt off the court early thanks to their strong defense, the fear of something similar happening in this matchup is justifiable.
On a brighter note, Mississippi State is dead last in D1 basketball when it comes to three-point percentage. The Bulldogs are shooting an abysmal 27% from beyond the arc, which allows the Panthers to focus their defense efforts towards the interior, where they will need to limit Bulldog senior forward Tolu Smith, a 6’11” 245 lb problem in the paint. If the Panthers can afford to risk lax defense at the three-point line in order to provide more help down low, there’s a clear path to victory.
Looking beyond that matchup if Pitt is to win, it’s worth noting that in every edition of March Madness outside of 2019 in which the first four have existed (since 2011) a first-four team has gone on to win another game. Between Pitt-Mississippi State and Nevada-Arizona State someone is bound to win another game. Why not the Panthers? If all goes right for this Panther team, I could see them making it as far as the Sweet 16.
Mississippi State is a good team. There is a reason they were given an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament just like Pitt. Every team 1-68 have shown that they are in at least one way better than the other 290 teams in D1 college basketball this season. And that one way is they got things done. They all won the games they needed to impress the committee enough to earn a bid (or won one outright). On the bright side, we have one of those teams this year;
What does that mean for this game and any future games? Well, we are in for a lot of stress, a lot of nail-biting, teeth-clenching, profanity-laden game(s) this March. We’ve seen all season long (except Northwestern) that Pitt does not have the high-end talent (like Duke for example) to blow the doors off a tournament-quality opponent. This, coupled with Mississippi State’s grind-it-out style, and this game will be close and low-scoring. The key number will be 40% shooting for the Bulldogs, both shooting and defending.
When Mississippi State shoots under 40%: 5-9
When Mississippi State holds their opponents under 40%: 13-3
What the Panthers do have, though, is the ability to close games out. If this game is close in the final minutes, I’m trusting the Panthers. Both teams have a ton of experience (Mississippi State’s top 8 contributors are all juniors or seniors), but Pitt has performed slightly better in one-possession games (6-3 vs 4-4)
Federiko’s health is an obvious concern. If he can’t go, it might not matter that Mississippi State can’t shoot, it’s hard to miss dunks and layups. I think he’ll suit up and Pitt wins a close one.
Beyond that, Pitt would face an Iowa State team that was in Pitt’s exact position a year ago. After a horrific 2-22 (0-18) season in 2021, Iowa State and new coach TJ Otzelberger rebuilt the team through the transfer portal, earned an 11 seed in the tournament, and made it all the way to the sweet 16.
What do I think is going to happen? I can’t say. I am too blinded by excitement and am most likely going to lose some money in bracket pools by picking Pitt to win the National Championship. Or maybe I won’t...
The Pittsburgh Panthers are in and got a favorable draw in the Midwest region. Before we can look ahead to potential matchups down the road though, their toughest test might be their first game. To get to a winnable Iowa State game and an exciting matchup against Xavier, the Panthers first must get through a Mississippi State team that plays the brand of basketball that has given the Panthers trouble. The Bulldogs play at a slow pace relying on playing great defense and being efficient from inside the arc. Tolu Smith is the catalyst of the Bulldog offense, a 6’11 forward shooting 57% from the field and cleaning up the glass on both ends.
For Pittsburgh to win this matchup, the Panthers need to play good post-defense and force the Bulldogs to make outside shots where they are the worst in the country. The Panthers have shown the blueprint of how to do it when they played North Carolina and frustrated Armando Bacot and will need a similar game plan here. If the Panthers are knocking down shots and putting the pressure on Mississippi State the Panthers will be in good shape, if they play as they have had during the last two weeks, it could spell trouble early.
If Pitt can get past the Bulldogs, the sweet 16 is a real possibility. Unfortunately, with how the Panthers have played down the stretch, I think it ends up being a short tournament stay. Still, this season has been a resounding success and one that Panthers fans feel proud of either way.