Heading into the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., there were no guarantees that the Pitt Panthers were heading to the big dance. A flimsy non-conference schedule, to put it lightly, does not impress the NCAA tournament selection committee even when a team finishes the regular season with a 23-8 record, even if you play in the ACC.
Given the fact that it was the Panthers’ first year in perhaps the most powerful of all power conferences, they evidently opted to coast through their non-conference schedule. While other teams in the conference were toughing it out with early-season showdowns versus an array of elite opponents, coach Jamie Dixon‘s team squared off against not-so-mighty foes including Lehigh, Howard and Youngstown State, earning the Panthers a non-conference strength of schedule (SOS) ranking of 238. Thus, they ventured to Greensboro as a bubble team and needed to put together an impressive run to avoid settling for an NIT birth.
The Panthers indeed laid all doubts to rest, advancing all the way to Saturday’s semifinals and narrowly falling to the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers. After busting out of the tournament’s starting gates and blowing out the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, the Panthers dominated the North Carolina Tar Heels in the quarterfinals, leading by as many as 20 points in the second half before staving off a late comeback attempt. Aside from flustering Tar Heels coach Roy Williams to no end, the Panthers made a statement that they could play at a beyond-elite level with all eyes watching, and their near upset of the Cavaliers cemented their case for the field of 68.
Seniors Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson led the way, each averaging 17 points over the Panthers’ three tournament games. Zanna also averaged 13 rebounds and will likely haunt coach Williams with horrible nightmares all summer long after pulling down a jaw-dropping 21 boards against the Tar Heels, 10 of them on on offensive glass. Zanna further showcased his dominance in the paint by shooting over 65 percent for the tournament, and Patterson shot just over 40 percent from three-point range. The Panthers also play very unselfishly and are ranked 15th nationally in assists per game this season behind sophomore point guard James Robinson.
The Panthers are not only safely in the NCAA tournament, but as a well-rounded team that stepped up in Greensboro to play its best basketball of the season, Dixon’s squad has the potential to stick around in the Big Dance for quite a while.