The 61st Atlantic Coast Conference tournament is scheduled to tip off Wednesday afternoon, and there is a new look to the tourney this year.
Some former Big East powerhouses have crashed the party, and everyone is looking to say an early goodbye to the Maryland Terrapins, who are leaving for the Big Ten.
The Pitt Panthers met expectations coming into the season, as they were picked to finish sixth in the conference and actually placed fifth.
The newcomers entered the ACC with a new look, as freshman 7-footer Steven Adams departed to the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA, while senior point guard Travon Woodall and center Dante Taylor graduated. Junior guards J.J. Moore and Trey Zeigler transferred from the program (to Rutgers and TCU, respectively).
True freshmen Michael Young, Jamel Artis and Josh Newkirk entered the fold and gained immediate playing time for a team that lost the majority of its scoring. Key returning players included seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, junior Cameron Wright, and sophomores Durand Johnson and James Robinson.
This season was certainly a wild ride for the Panthers, beginning the season 18-2 and entering the rankings; 17th would be the highest they climbed. In the mid-to-late season stretch, Pitt hit some roadblocks, finishing the season 5-6 in its last 11 games.
The loss of sixth man Durand Johnson to season-ending injury was a serious blow to Pitt, but freshmen Newkirk and Artis have certainly stepped up in his absence.
Overall, a 23-8 record isn’t too bad, considering how much coach Jamie Dixon lost. I think fans are more discouraged by how Pitt finished, the weak non-conference slate, and an inability to close out tight games. (Next year will be exciting as the Panthers will be in the Maui Invitational, with the possibility of playing Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats squad).
I won’t go into all of the close finishes, because I am sure us Pitt fans are all aware of the last-second losses. I won’t be forgetting about Tyler Ennis’ dagger anytime soon, nor hearing Bill Hillgrove’s disappointed voice as Malcolm Brogdon buried a 3-pointer to give the Virginia Cavaliers a 48-45 win at the Pete.
Though I thought Pitt was safe after their unbelievable comeback win on the road against Clemson, the “experts” are still considering Pitt as on the NCAA bubble. Maybe a win against either Notre Dame or Wake Forest on Thursday will help.
Joe Lunardi currently has Pitt as a 10 seed playing Kentucky, whereas Jerry Palm has it as an 11 seed playing Saint Louis. USA Today lists as one of the “last five in,” facing Arkansas in a play-in game.
This makes me a bit uneasy, especially as I was expecting Pitt to be anywhere from a 4 to 6 seed last year, and they got an 8 seed and had a date with Wichita State (who is now 34-0 after their run to the Final Four last season).
Regardless, Pitt can change the experts’ perspectives with a solid ACC tournament run. Hopefully the Panthers can get past their first game Thursday and set up a great matchup with James Michael McAdoo and 15th-ranked North Carolina.
If Pitt can get by the Tar Heels, there is the potential to square off against the ACC regular-season champion Virginia Cavaliers in the semifinals. The ‘Hoos are ranked sixth in the country.
These games could certainly give Pitt a little boost for the tourney, if the Panthers could get revenge on some of the teams who defeated them.
As for my predictions, I am going to go with Wake Forest over Notre Dame, Miami over Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech over Boston College in the first round.
In the second round, I am predicting Florida State over Maryland, Pittsburgh over Wake Forest, N.C. State over Miami, and Clemson over Georgia Tech.
Looking at the quarterfinals matchups, these were more difficult to predict, but I am going to say Virginia over Florida State, essentially ending the Seminoles chances of a NCAA bid. I truly believe Pitt will get revenge on a North Carolina squad that was on fire until losing to Duke last week.
I think that N.C. State, primarily lead by sophomore sensation T.J. Warren, will upset a struggling Syracuse in one last effort for a tourney bid. Then Duke will outlast Clemson in a game where freshman Jabari Parker is too much to handle.
As for the semifinals, I think Pitt will fall to Virginia in a hotly-contested defensive battle just like we saw at the Pete during the season. To me, Virginia seems to be a mirror image of Pitt teams from the past, playing suffocating half-court defense and stepping up in the clutch. Duke will end the Warren show, stopping the Wolfpack’s chances for a bid.
In the finals, I am going to predict that Virginia gets revenge on Duke and eventually becomes a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.