Pitt basketball: Panthers’ legitimacy in question

On Monday, January 27, the Duke Blue Devils defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers 80-65, handing the Panthers their first home loss this season.  The Blue Devils were paced by Jabari Parker’s 21 points, and proved to be too much for the Panthers to handle who were led by Lamar Patterson’s 14 points.

This loss has all fans and analysts wondering; is the Pitt basketball team worthy of their top-20 ranking?

Their only signature wins come against average teams such as Stanford, North Carolina State and Wake Forest.  Pitt has lost in all three matchups versus ranked opponents, Cincinnati, Syracuse and Duke.

Sure, Pitt has earned an 18-3 (6-2 ACC) record, but with a strength of schedule of 59, it proves that Pitt’s quality of non-conference opponents was mediocre at best.  With a poor strength of schedule and losses in all three of their chances to prove their worth, how talented is this Pitt team?

In my opinion, Pitt is a solid top-25 team.  They have yet to lose a game to a team that they were expected to beat.  Facing teams who Pitt is ranked better than, they have notched an 18-0 record.  When proving their talent, teams must not falter when playing teams worse than themselves.  Too many times this season, teams such as North Carolina and UConn failed to persevere against teams who had considerably less talent than them.

Pitt’s recent blowout loss to 17th-ranked Duke could be explained by rotation issues.  The Panthers hung in with Duke for most of the game until Duke went on a spirited 15-2 run with eight minutes to go, and Pitt never recovered.

On January 11, Pitt lost their sixth man, Durand Johnson, for the season to a torn ACL.  Johnson is a redshirt sophomore averaging 8.8 points per game coming off the bench for the Panthers.  Things seemed like they were finally starting to click for him as he was making a name for himself in the ACC.  Losing Johnson for the season left a significant void in the Panthers offensive output.

The injury to Johnson thrust freshman Josh Newkirk into a larger role and allotted more minutes to redshirt freshman, Chris Jones, who was used sparingly much of the first half of the season.  Pitt will counting on both Jones and Newkirk to provide major contributions for the remainder of the season.

The Panthers’ depth and rotation called into question their ability to finish games as more players appear to be getting fatigued quicker.  Since Johnson’s injury, the Panthers have struggled to maintain a lead late in games.  Prior to their game with Duke, against Maryland, Pitt’s 13-point lead late in the second half, shrunk to a four-point win.

The Panthers lack of depth can certainly explain a late game falter against Duke as well cause alarm for the future.  However in my opinion, Jamie Dixon has his players ready, battle-tested and poised to maintain its top-25 level of play the rest of the season as they get ready for March, despite their recent struggles.