Pitt reaching the Final Four seems inevitable

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The Big East is turning into Pitt’s personal playground. That’s a promising sign for a program dying to get back to the Final Four.

A 57-54 win at Villanova Saturday night gave the Panthers their first win at The Palestra Pavilion 17 years and marked the first time they’ve won 11 of their first 12 Big East games. Not bad for team playing without leading scorer Ashton Gibbs.

“It was fun. A hostile environment, no Ashton Gibbs and we got the win,” said senior Brad Wanamaker, who scored a team-high 21 points, including most of the clutch baskets that usually fall to Gibbs.

That gives Pitt (23-2, 11-1) a sizable lead heading into its final six Big East games. Notre Dame – its one conference loss – is 10-3, while the rest of the league is no better than 8-4. If you’re a believer that the Big East is the nation’s best conference, the fact that Pitt’s running away with the league should be an indicator of what March holds.

For comparison, the 2008-09 Pitt squad that finished 31-5, reached No. 1 in the rankings, nabbed a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and reached the Elite Eight features tempo-free numbers that are awfully close to this year’s edition. (That Sam Young-DeJuan Blair-Levance Fields team didn’t win the Big East but had stiffer competition in Louisville and UConn.) The offense is slightly worse, but the defense is better.

People have noticed, too.

“I think [this Pitt team] compares to their team in ’09. Their depth, their experience, their veteran guys are awesome,” ‘Nova coach Jay Wright told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook.

Pitt’s detractors love to write them off as a team that thrives in the regular season and falters in March for varying reasons, usually related to their offense. (Because reaching the Final Four is soooo easy.) Yet Cook writes that the more Pitt plays, the tougher it’s gonna be to ignore their Final Four chances.

After all, this is a team that just won at ‘Nova without its leading scorer. That should speak volumes. From Cook’s column:

… I like No. 4 Pitt’s chances as much as any team’s. There is no dominant club this season. No. 1 Ohio State lost Saturday at Wisconsin, the last of the unbeatens to fall. Pitt already has beaten one of the teams ahead of it in the polls — No. 3 Texas.

That Texas win was back in November, before the Longhorns turned into the nation’s nastiest defensive team. But that’s nitpicking given that Pitt’s offense is an incredible blend of talent, depth and impressive rebounding.

And that defense? Ask Jay Wright about it. For one of the few times this year, the Panthers won by shutting down an opposing offense, not by displaying an unstoppable offense.

Offense, defense, depth, talent. Pitt has it all. If this isn’t the year the Panthers return to the Final Four, not sure when it’ll happen.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Syracuse upsets No. 18 UConn as Tyler Lydon stars again

St Bonaventure Syracuse Basketball
AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth
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Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney combined for 34 points as Syracuse overcame an early 10-point deficit to knock off No. 18 UConn in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 79-76.

The talking point at the end of this game is probably going to end up being UConn’s decision not to foul Syracuse with 36 seconds left on the clock. Trevor Cooney dribbled out the clock and, with six seconds left, missed a 35-foot prayer, the offensive rebound getting corralled by Tyler Roberson, sealing the win.

But that’s not the real story here.

That would be Tyler Lydon, who suddenly looks like he may end up being the difference maker for this Syracuse team.

If you don’t know the name, I don’t blame you. Lydon was a low-end top 100 recruit that had been committed to the Orange for a long time. He’s not exactly a game-changing prospect, but he’s a perfect fit for Syracuse. At 6-foot-9, Lydon has the length to be a shot-blocker in the middle of the 2-3 zone — he entered Thursday averaging 3.3 blocks — but his biggest skill is his ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc. When he plays the middle of that zone, when he is essentially the five for the Orange, they become incredibly difficult to matchup with defensively.

The question is whether or not he can consistently be that guy on the defensive end of the floor. Against UConn, Lydon had 16 points and 12 boards. Against Charlotte, he finished with 18 points, eight boards and six blocks. But neither the Huskies nor the 49ers have a big front line that crashes the offensive glass.

Lydon is great at using his length to make shots in the lane difficult, but at (a generous) 205 pounds, he may run into trouble against bigger, stronger front court players.

The perfect test?

Texas A&M, who the Orange will play in the title game on Friday.

USC holds on to beat No. 20 Wichita State

Andy Enfield
Associated Press
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With guards Fred VanVleet and Landry Shamet both sidelined due to injury, No. 20 Wichita State arrived at the Advocare Invitational shorthanded. But even with that being the case the highly successful Shockers represented quite the opportunity for USC, and Thursday afternoon the Trojans took advantage.

Despite turning the ball over 23 times Andy Enfield’s team found a way to win, hanging on to beat the Shockers by the final score of 72-69. Freshman forward Bennie Boatwright, a tough matchup for most teams as a 6-foot-10 stretch forward who can score from the perimeter, shot 5-for-9 from three and scored a team-high (and career-high) 22 points.

The tandem of he and junior Nikola Jovanovic, who added 14 points and 11 rebounds, outplayed the Wichita State front court on a day in which the Shockers needed greater contributions from those players. Add in 15 points and four assists from Jordan McLaughlin, ten points off the bench from Katin Reinhardt and a 12-for-23 afternoon from three, and the Trojans were able to do enough to make up for their high turnover count and Wichita State’s 24 points off of turnovers.

Given the absence of VanVleet and Shamet there’s no reason to panic regarding Wichita State. Ron Baker, who was exhausted by the end of the game due to the heavy load he was asked to shoulder, scored a game-high 25 points and the play of freshman Markis McDuffie was a positive to build on.

McDuffie, who entered Thursday’s game without a made field goal in his first two appearances as a Shocker, shot 5-for-9 from the field and contributed 14 points and three rebounds off the bench. With their current perimeter rotation being what it is McDuffie will have opportunities to contribute, and the Shockers will need him to take advantage as they await the returns of VanVleet and Shamet (and the addition of Conner Frankamp).

Doing so will not only help Wichita State in the short term but in the long-term as well, thus giving Gregg Marshall another option to call upon on his bench.

Thursday’s outcome, even with the desire to see more from Anton Grady (eight points, seven rebounds), says more about USC at this point in time than Wichita State. Enfield’s first two seasons at the helm were about amassing the talent needed to compete in the Pac-12 while also gaining valuable (and at times painful) experience. In year three the Trojans hope to take a step forward within the conference, and wins like this one provide evidence of the program’s growth.