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First Four Preview: Pitt vs. Mississippi State

Setting the stage for the Panthers first tournament appearance in over half a decade

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four Practice Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Put on your dancing shoes folks, the Pittsburgh Panthers are back in March Madness. Pitt tips off tonight at 9:10 ET at the University of Dayton Arena, facing off against the 21-12 (8-10 SEC) Mississippi State Bulldogs. Heading into the matchup the Bulldogs are slight favorites per most betting sites but by no more than three points. It’ll be a toss-up of a contest, and thanks to the pace of play that Chris Jans’ Bulldogs utilize, this game will likely be an anxiety-riddled watch from beginning to end.


Mississippi State has an extremely interesting profile as a team. Defensively? They’re magnificent. They’re sixth in KENPOM, far and away the best defense the Panthers have played all season long. Not only can they generate turnovers ( 8.9 SPG ranks 17th nationally) they force opponents to take tough shot after tough shot. Opponents of the Bulldogs have shot 39% from the field this season, the 10th-lowest percentage in the country.

Tolu Smith is the name you’ll hear all night long and is far and away the best player on the Bulldogs. Smith is the only player on the team averaging double-digit points, putting up 15.8 points per game. Standing at 6’11” 245 LBS Smith provides a serious mismatch for the Panthers, especially if Federiko Federiko isn’t able to play (He will be a game-time decision). Smith is first in the SEC in FG% at 57.4%, and his ability to gather rebounds on both ends of the court will allow the Bulldogs to extend possessions and get better opportunities down low. If Federiko is ruled out for the contest and one of the twins is asked to step up in his stead, look for constant double teams to be sent Smith’s way any time he gets the ball down low.

The Panthers can afford to double-team Smith because leaving someone beyond the arc open for the Bulldogs is a lot less frightening than you may think. Mississippi State is the worst three-point shooting team in the entire country, posting a gaudy 27% from beyond the arc. No player on the Bulldogs shoots better than 35% from deep and they average five total per game as a team. The Bulldogs can struggle to score, and KENPOM rates their offense as the 164th best in the country, but with that Tolu Smith mismatch problem and a vaunted defense, this SEC opponent is an intimidating matchup.


Generate your own pace:

If the panthers can get out and moving on the floor and speed this game up, they’ll be able to generate much more high-efficiency offensive opportunities. This could be a big game for a player like Nike Sibande who will provide sparks when Pitt can’t seem to get anything going for a period of time. Facing a defense as good as this Mississippi State team, it’s likely the Panthers will go through stretches where they can’t make shots. Use your spark plug-type players in moments like these to revitalize your offense and push the ball further toward the hoop. More action towards the hoop leads to increased opportunities for someone like Greg Elliott and Blake Hinson, who can hunt for corner threes when the momentum of Pitt’s offense forces the Bulldogs towards the basket.

Limit offensive rebounds:

If there was one stat that I think could be the most decisive in this entire contest, it would be this one right here. Mississippi State is going to miss shots, but if they can count on 2-3 shots a possession every once in a while, a miss here and there won’t hurt them as badly. Tolu Smith is a phenomenal rebounder and it’s going to be a tough task to keep him out of double-double territory, but there are very few “easy” tasks come this time in the college basketball calendar.