Humbled and hammered by the Duke Blue Devils on Monday night, the Pittsburgh Panthers look into the mirror today ahead of Sunday’s crucial ACC game against the Virginia Cavaliers at a crossroads. Pittsburgh (18-3, 6-2 ACC) is one of the best college basketball teams in the country. Until Monday, the Panthers had suffered just two losses by a total of six points against two teams who were quite familiar with them in old Big East rivals Cincinnati and Syracuse.
But after Duke embarrassed the Panthers 80-65 in Pittsburgh on Monday, Pitt will become one of two teams this season. The first option is that the Panthers will learn from the Duke blowout and rally, beating Virginia on Sunday and then adding victories over Miami and Virginia Tech to go into their rematch with Syracuse at home on Feb. 12 with a 21-3 record, 9-2 in the ACC, and still in contention for the conference championship.
It’s the other, more familiar option that has to be worrisome for longtime Pitt supporters. As good as the Panthers have been for the last 10 years under head coach Jamie Dixon, Pitt has forever seemed to be trying to turn that last corner to become a national powerhouse. Whether it’s a conference tournament final (five losses in seven appearances), a late-round NCAA Tournament game (Pitt’s lone Final Four appearance was in 1941) or a big regular-season game, Pitt has the reputation of being the team that just doesn’t get the job done when it counts. After the big loss to Duke, another crushing defeat at the hands of an excellent Virginia (16-5, 7-1) team on Sunday could spiral the Panthers’ season into disappointment.
Against Duke, all that had been going well for Pittsburgh fell apart. The Panthers’ tremendous defense gave up 46 points to the Blue Devils in the second-half. Senior forward Lamar Patterson, who had become the favorite for ACC Player of the Year, hit just 4-of-14 shots from the field on a 14-point night. Patterson did have five rebounds, but he also had an uncharacteristic five turnovers, half those of his entire team. Defensively, Pittsburgh let Duke shoot 52 percent (13-for-25) from three-point range, and the Panthers caused just seven Duke turnovers. The Blue Devils also assisted on 19 of their 28 field goals.
Such defensive work against Virginia on Sunday will lead to a rare second consecutive home loss. The Cavaliers demolished Notre Dame in South Bend Tuesday night, leading by as many as 24 points in a 68-53 victory. All seven of Virginia’s ACC wins this season have come by at least 12 points and the only loss was by a mere four points at Duke. You could make the argument that the Cavaliers are the better team going into Sunday’s game, but Pittsburgh has the ability to change that perception by rising up and defending its home court.
Changing the perception is probably going to be part of Dixon’s message to his team in advance of Sunday’s game. After Monday’s loss, many probably view Pittsburgh as the same old Panthers. A loss Sunday would only reinforce that and could more importantly end any hope Pittsburgh has of winning the ACC regular-season title.