After watching the ninth-seeded Pitt Panthers completely annihilate Colorado in their first game of the NCAA tournament, I’m beginning to second-guess my decision to take the Florida Gators to win it all.
After all, I did fill out another bracket where I took Pitt all the way to the Final Four, purely based off of their showing in the ACC Tournament.
Pitt recorded its largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament matchup (29 points), and broke a streak of never defeating a higher-seeded team in the Big Dance since 1981.
I saw a ton of Pitt apparel at the gym this morning, as well as in the city of Pittsburgh today. Panthers fans are excited for a much-anticipated Saturday afternoon matchup against the No.1-seeded Gators (33-2), who struggled at times against Albany in their first game.
So, the big question on all of our minds is, “Can Pitt knock off the supposedly best team in the country?”
I believe the answer is, “Definitely.” Here is why:
When was the last time we have seen the Panthers play with such fire, passion, and emotion in a do-or-die tourney? I believe the last time was in the 2008 Big East tournament, in which Pitt was a 7-seed and won the tourney, defeating top-seeded Georgetown 74-65 in the final.
That was the year that everyone learned of the trio of Sam Young, Levance Fields and DeJuan Blair, although in the following year, when Pitt was favored to win it all, they struggled against 16th-seeded East Tennessee State. Those Panthers were eventually knocked out in the Elite Eight by Villanova, but I didn’t see the same emotion that we are currently seeing from the 2014 squad.
In last year’s tourney, Pitt looked miserable and lethargic against Wichita State, and it seemed as if Jamie Dixon could not get his team started.
Pitt again looked dead in the water during the final stretch of this season, as they were seriously considered a bubble team who could have been left out of the tourney with a loss to Clemson.
We all recall Pitt’s unbelievable comeback against Clemson in the final game of the season. Did that victory give Pitt a sense of new life? The Panthers may be peaking at the right time. We all know that if a squad gets hot in March, they could tread right into the Final Four.
Is Pitt playing with an underdog mentality of “us against the world?” We all remember the numerous tournament heartbreakers that the program has experienced as a favorite, as I detailed earlier this week.
Playing as an underdog, with no pressure and nothing to lose, may just be what Pitt needed.
In Pitt’s last four games, the Panthers crushed Wake Forest, buried UNC for 35 minutes, lost a back-and-forth battle to ACC champion and No. 1 seed Virginia, and then annihilated Colorado. This team currently has a strong sense of confidence.
It also appears that injured sophomore Durand Johnson has been motivating the team on the sidelines and in the locker room. The Panthers needed an emotional leader, and this team may have found one for inspiration.
Pitt is playing at a hard-nosed, possessed level at which we are not accustomed to seeing. We typically expect close, low-scoring battles, but the Panthers have been dominating as of late.
Pitt beat Colorado in every facet of the game Thursday. After Pitt beat UNC last week, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said, “We got our butts kicked.”
Pitt has been playing gritty, forcing turnovers and scoring off of them.The Panthers have been playing unselfish ball and not relying on jump shots or the 3-pointer. Pitt drove to the hoop against Colorado, and the Buffaloes had no answer. Seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna are playing as if it is their final game.
However, Florida is good. Really good. They have senior leaders, athletic scorers who can shoot, a forward who looks like an NFL linebacker (Patric Young), and they put on full-court pressure. Coach Billy Donovan has won two national championships in the past decade.
Let’s look at their schedule:
Florida had early-season losses to Wisconsin (59-53) and Connecticut (65-64). The Gators beat Florida State 67-66, Kansas 67-61 and Memphis 77-75. They are on an impressive – though not too challenging – 27-game winning streak. All of their big games were close, and Pitt has essentially been in every game it has played this season.
There is no reason to believe that Florida will blow out the Panthers. I predict this game will be very close.
How good is the SEC?
Only three teams made the tourney (No. 1 Florida, No. 8 Kentucky, No. 11 Tennessee). Kentucky is young (though talented), and I believe Tennessee would be in the middle of the pack in the ACC.
When it comes to conference play, you would have to give the edge to Pitt with regards to strength of schedule. Coach K from Duke said that the ACC teams have to go through the “meat grinder.” I wouldn’t say the ACC is as good as the old Big East, but they are certainly more competitive at the top compared to the SEC.
So how can Pitt beat Florida?
- Pitt needs to get off to a great start. When Pitt comes out and makes shots early, the whole team seems to gain confidence and momentum.
- Pitt needs to be able to handle the full-court pressure from the Gators. We saw Pitt struggle against UNC’s press, so the Panthers will need to move the ball up the court quickly.
- Pitt has to drive the ball to the hoop and play unselfish. If Pitt settles for jump shots and firing up 3-pointers, they may be in some trouble.
- Pitt has to defend the 3. Florida likes to shoot the 3, so Pitt cannot give their guards wide-open looks.
- Pitt has to play aggressively but smart. They cannot commit careless turnovers because Florida can capitalize on them.
- Pitt needs to make free throws. The Panthers cannot have a lapse like in the UNC game.
- Pitt has to play loose. Who has the pressure in this game? Florida is No. 1 in the country, a favorite to win it in many brackets, and they are playing Pitt in their backyard.
- If Pitt is leading a close game with under two minutes remaining, they cannot try to run out the clock. The Panthers offense became stagnant late in both games against Syracuse, and it came back to hurt them.
If Pitt plays like it has in its past four contests, I would not be surprised to see the Panthers march on to the Sweet Sixteen.
I am predicting Pitt to pull off the upset 70-65. Tipoff is scheduled for 12:15 p.m. Eastern time on CBS.