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With the ACC struggling, will Pitt reap the benefits?

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

BROOKLYN — The talk of the ACC heading into the season was the league’s trio of powerhouses.

Duke was going to be a national title contender with Jabari Parker joining Rodney Hood in their front court. North Carolina would be as well, if only they could figure out a way to get P.J. Hairston eligible to play again. Syracuse might take a while to grow into their potential, but once Tyler Ennis develops as a point guard, they would be challenging for a conference title again, just a bit further south this time.

And then there was Notre Dame and their guards.

And Virginia and their defense.

And Maryland and Boston College and Georgia Tech and … have you noticed who’s missing from this list?

It would be wrong to say that the Pittsburgh Panthers entered the season without expectations. You know, because they’re Pitt. They’ve become a perennial NCAA tournament team, one that regularly competed for Big East titles. Anything less than the big dance is unacceptable, and that inherently means that the Panthers have expectations each and every year. They’ll tell you that.

But the Panthers didn’t have any hype this season. There was no talk amongst the media prognosticators of Pitt being a group that could finished in the top four of the ACC let alone a potential title contender.

Might it be time to reevaluate that?

It’s early, I know, but after a dominating, 76-53 win over Texas Tech in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, the Panthers are now sitting at 5-0 with five convincing wins. They still haven’t beaten anyone of note, and we should have a much better feel for how good this team is after tomorrow night’s final. But here’s the thing to remember: Pitt may be the only ACC team that’s trending in the right direction right now.

Duke’s winning games and scoring a ton of points, but this is easily the worst defensive team that Coach K has ever had in Durham. North Carolina’s got a nice win over then-No. 3 Louisville on their resume, but they still don’t have Hairston and McDonald back. Syracuse is undefeated, but they certainly haven’t been impressive in a number of those wins. Virginia loss to VCU at home looks worst with the Rams’ performance in Puerto Rico. Notre Dame got drubbed by Indiana State at home. Boston College is 2-4.

That leaves Pitt, a team chock full of grizzled veterans that win with their typical grit and grime, defending and executing offense.

“We’re an unselfish team,” senior Lamar Patterson said after going for 23 points, four assists and five steals. “We’re not one of those schools that goes out and gets highly-touted people that come in and leave early. We have people that have chemistry from being around each other so long.”

That’s not going to change.

That’s how Pitt wins games, and they’re going to continue to win games. They don’t have the same level of talent as some of the ACC favorites, and thus they don’t have the same ceiling.

But think about this: the No. 1 ACC team in KenPom’s rankings is Pitt.

No. 14 West Virginia takes care of No. 15 Baylor

West Virginia forward Devin Williams (41) dunks the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor, Saturday, Feb, 6, 2016, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
AP Photo/Raymond Thompson
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Not exactly noted for their ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, No. 14 West Virginia grabbed sole possession of first place in the Big 12 thanks in part to their perimeter shooting. The Mountaineers shot 7-for-14 from three and 49.1 percent from the field in a 80-69 win over No. 15 Baylor that wasn’t as close as the final margin would lead one to believe.

Bob Huggins’ team led by as much as 19 in the second half, and the way in which they did it is what makes the win so impressive. “Press Virginia” yielded just ten Baylor turnovers, but that low number didn’t matter much thanks to West Virginia’s execution offensively.

They found quality looks against Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone in the first half and made them at a good clip, forcing Scott Drew to switch to man-to-man. That change didn’t do much to slow down West Virginia either, as Daxter Miles Jr. scored 20 points and sixth man Jaysean Paige added 17 off the bench. And with Devin Williams chipping in with 16 points and seven boards in the post, outplaying Baylor’s Rico Gathers Sr. (five points, seven rebounds), West Virginia grabbed control of the game in the first half and did not relinquish it.

The usual formula for West Virginia offensively is to attack the offensive glass, as their offensive rebounding percentage (43 percent) is tops in the country. “Their best offense is a missed shot” is a familiar refrain heard when people discuss the Mountaineers, who entered the game shooting just over 30 percent from three.

They didn’t need to lean on those second chances as heavily as they normally do Saturday night, not only because of the improved accuracy but also the improved work in finding shots. The ball moved against the Baylor defense and so did the players, resulting in an offensive attack that proved tougher for the visiting Bears to stop that one would expect given the statistics entering the game.

West Virginia was already established as a contender in the Big 12, but thanks to their win Saturday night the Mountaineers are the current pace setters. With a showdown at No. 7 Kansas set for Tuesday night, this was a big win for Bob Huggins’ team to get. And with it coming in spite of a low turnover (forced) count, this should only help West Virginia in the confidence department moving forward.

No. 22 Indiana falls at Penn State

Penn State's Shep Garner (33) moves towards the basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana in State College, Pa., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
(AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
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Brendan Taylor scored 24 points to lead Penn State to a 68-63 upset of No. 22 Indiana on Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions were 2-8 in Big Ten play entering the weekend. Indiana? They were 9-1 and tied for first in the conference. It’s the second loss in four games for the Hoosiers following a 7-0 start to Big Ten play, a fact made all the more concerning by the fact that their league schedule is finally about to get difficult.

The Hoosiers play No. 5 Iowa at home and No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing next week. The following week they get No. 18 Purdue at home. In the final week of the regular season, Indiana squares off with No. 5 Iowa on the road and close the regular season with a visit from No. 4 Maryland.

That’s a lot of good teams that the Hoosiers to close out the year.

The question has been asked since Indiana’s hot start to league play: Are they for real? Did the Hoosiers really somehow turn things around defensively, or was that winning streak simply a by-product of their schedule?

The truth is that it was probably a combination of both. Calling them a fraud would be unjust — if you watched those games, there wasn’t much fluky about them; Indiana earned the Ws — but it does seem fair to say this is something of a regression to the mean.

They were going to slip up eventually.

And it will totally be forgotten if the Hoosiers can find a way to close the regular season with a winning record in their final seven games.