Pittsburgh Basketball: Evaluating Panthers’ Non-Conference Schedule

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

In its first year without Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh won’t face many tests in non-conference play. The Panthers have already beaten Indiana in an exhibition — the one in Pennsylvania, though. Not the Hoosiers, ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25.

For what it’s worth, Tray Woodall played 28 minutes in Pitt’s 69-54 win and dished out seven assists to go with 16 points. Jamie Dixon is counting on him to be healthy, and that’s an encouraging sign after reports of continued discomfort in Woodall’s abdomen surfaced a few weeks ago.

Pittsburgh has one more exhibition before hosting a Mount St. Mary’s team coming off an eight-win season in the opener. The Panthers should have no trouble defeating the Mountaineers no matter how much rust is left to shake off.

Even with double-double machine Chris Gaston, Fordham won’t pose any threat either three days later in the NIT Season Tip-Off opener. The Rams are once again expected to finish near the bottom of the A-10, a shame given Gaston’s ability. Pitt’s guards and wings are simply much better than Fordham’s, leaving the Rams with little chance of staying in the game.

Things could get interesting, though, in the tournament’s second round, where Pitt will face either Lehigh or Robert Morris. The Mountainhawks return almost every key player, including AP All-American C.J. McCollum, from last year’s team that upset Duke. They’ve proven they can hang with better teams.

Robert Morris, on the other hand, didn’t have the opportunity on the national stage last year, but the Colonials won 26 games and return their top seven scorers. Last season, Robert Morris left the Petersen Events Center as 81-71 losers, but Pitt would be foolish to sleep on the Colonials, should they meet on Nov. 13.

Oakland, next up on Pitt’s slate, lost Reggie Hamilton and his nation-leading 26.2 points per game. The Golden Grizzlies won’t be as much of a threat this year, but the Travis Bader/Drew Valentine duo can hang with Pitt’s best.

Pitt’s most daunting task — possibly the only time the Panthers won’t be favored in non-conference play — would likely come against Michigan at Madison Square Garden, if both teams make it out of their NIT preliminary rounds. The Wolverines are a trendy Final Four pick after ranking No. 5 in the AP preseason poll. AP preseason All-American Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. form one of the nation’s top backcourts, so Woodall, Trey Zeigler and James Robinson will have their hands full.

If the rest of the tournament shakes out as expected, Pitt would face either Kansas State or Virginia in either the championship or the consolation game.

The Wildcats return every player save Jamar Samuels from last year’s tournament team, led by Rodney McGruder. Kansas State has a blend of size up front and quickness in the backcourt, but the key matchup will be McGruder versus either Zeigler or Lamar Patterson.

Pitt should have the advantage over Virginia, which lost Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski.

From there, Pitt’s only potential challenges would be Detroit and Duquesne. But the Dukes lost their two best players following last season.

Detroit will be one of the nation’s top mid-majors, and the matchup between Zeigler and Ray McCallum will be interesting, if only because they were both highly regarded recruits in the same class and both chose to play for their father’s mid-major. Zeigler, of course, left Central Michigan after his father’s firing.

Overall, the Panthers would play at most three games away from home before Big East play — none of those games are true road games, and if anything, Pitt would be closest to home in each of them. Anything short of a 12-1 record would probably be considered a disappointment.

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