Six-seeded Wisconsin and 10-seeded Pittsburgh will meet for the 18th time Friday in St. Louis, Mo., in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The teams haven’t played since 2006, when the Badgers won 89-75 at the Kohl Center when Wisconsin was ranked No. 7 and Pitt ranked No. 2.
After making the tournament for 10 consecutive years from 2002-’11, the Panthers earned a trip to the big dance in 2013 and 2014 before missing it last season.
Pittsburgh finished with a 21-11 record and went 9-9 in the ACC, finishing in the middle of the pack in the very talented conference led by North Carolina (a No. 1 seed), Virginia (No. 1) , Miami (No. 3), Louisville (self-imposed postseason ban), Notre Dame (No. 6) and Duke (No. 4).
It topped Syracuse 72-71 in the first round of the ACC Tournament Wednesday thanks to redshirt freshman Cameron Johnson’s 24 points off the bench. Johnson helped power Pitt to a 66-54 second-half lead before Syracuse launched a vicious 14-2 run to tie the game at 68 with under two minutes to go, but senior James Robinson put the Panthers ahead for good with a steal and subsequent layup.
Any momentum Pitt established against Syracuse was squelched in the second round of the tournament the following day, when it was blown out by eventual conference champion North Carolina 88-71. The Tar Heels shot a mind-boggling 58.9 percent from the field to extend their 39-35 halftime lead and end the Panthers’ tournament run.
Pitt limped into the ACC Tournament having lost six of its last nine games, including a three-game skid in February when it fell to Virginia, Miami and North Carolina. The Panthers boast impressive wins against Syracuse Dec. 30, Notre Dame Jan. 9 and Duke Feb. 28, but they also had bad losses to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Clemson.
Head coach Jamie Dixon, who has led Pitt for 13 seasons amassing a 327-121 record, employs a smaller starting lineup highlighted by redshirt junior guard Chris Jones (6-foot-6), redshirt senior forward Rafael Maia (6-foot-9), junior forward Michael Young (6-foot-9), junior forward Jamel Artis (6-foot-7) and Robinson, a 6-foot-3 guard. Young is their unquestioned spark plug, scoring 16 points, pulling in seven rebounds and dishing out 2.4 assists per game. He made the third-team All-ACC team, finishing ninth in the conference in points per game, 10th in field goal percentage (.539) and 12th in rebounds. Young and Artis (14.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game) combine to establish a formidable, albeit undersized, frontcourt.
The Panthers rank 33rd in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency ratings, shooting 46 percent from the field as a team and 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. They are ranked 52nd in RPI and have a 2-7 record against teams ranked in the top 100 of RPI.
Pitt went 13 straight seasons with 20-plus wins before posting a 19-15 mark in 2014-’15, as it struggled to an 8-10 ACC record. It has rebounded nicely this season, however, and although it has struggled in recent weeks, it’s a dangerous first-round matchup Wisconsin could have trouble with. Although the Panthers lack size, Wisconsin isn’t a particularly towering team either, and with their battle-hardened persona formed by competing in the ACC, Pitt presents a very real challenge.