The Southeast Region's top seed springs into action Thursday afternoon at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. as the Pittsburgh Panthers embark on a national title quest against the 16th-seed UNC-Asheville.
Pittsburgh enters this year's tournament as the Big East regular-season champions and as a No. 1 seed for the second time in three years. The Panthers are making their 10th consecutive appearance at the Big Dance, tops amongst Big East schools, and 23rd overall having won a remarkable six Big East crowns in the last 10 years. Pitt has a pretty healthy history of late in the tournament, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in five of the last nine seasons and carrying a 22-23 overall record into Thursday's opener. The Panthers' hope for a Big East Conference tournament crown were dashed by UConn in the quarterfinals via a 76-74 setback. It proved to be the third loss in six games for Pitt, which had just five defeats all year. Each of those losses came against teams from this year's tournament, also including Tennessee, Notre Dame, St. John's and Louisville. The Panthers lost to Xavier in the second round last year as a three seed.
Thursday's opponent for Pitt was the first team to advance at this year's tourney, as UNC-Asheville knocked off Arkansas-Little Rock Tuesday as part of the field's new "First Four" round. It wasn't easy for the Big South Conference champions, who needed Matt Dickey's step-back three-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime before emerging with a hard-fought 81-77 win at University of Dayton Arena. J.P. Primm helped win it at the free throw line in OT and matched Dickey with a 22-point night for the Bulldogs. Tuesday's matchup was the opener of four games over two days in Dayton as part of the new play-in format to reach the traditional 64-team field, and in this case, a date with Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs are participating in their second NCAA Tournament and improved to 2-1 at this event with the win over UALR, extending Asheville's win streak to seven games in the process. UNC-Asheville took on a hefty non-conference schedule with matchups against three of this year's better tournament teams, Ohio State, North Carolina and Georgetown, and although each resulted in defeat, the top-flight competition figures to help prepare the Bulldogs for the likes of Pitt.
Thursday's matchup will be the first-ever between the Panthers and UNC- Asheville.
The Bulldogs are led by the Big South championship game MVP Dickey, who averages 15.5 points per game and 3.3 assists. Primm backs Dickey with a solid 14.6 ppg and a team-high 4.6 assists. Primm also paces the club in steals with 69 and has knocked down 55 three-pointers on 35.0 percent shooting. Dickey has dropped a team-leading 63 threes on 38.0 percent shooting with 61 steals. Chris Stephenson averages 9.3 ppg, John Williams checks in at 9.0 ppg and D.J. Cunningham posts a solid 8.9 points and team-high 7.5 rebounds per game. The Bulldogs stand as the third-best scoring team in the Big South at 74.4 ppg, second in field-goal percentage (45.6) and third in free-throw percentage (71.0). The defense leaves a bit to be desired at 68.5 points against, sixth in conference, but the Bulldogs rise to third in field-goal percentage defense (41.7) and rank third in blocks with 4.4 per game. UNC-Asheville checks in as the league's sixth-best rebounding team (35.9 rpg), third in assists (14.6 apg) and second in turnover margin (plus-2.55) in addition to a league-leading 9.2 steals.
The Panthers' regular-season success in the Big East, regarded as the nation's best conference, speaks volumes of the potential that Pitt holds for a possible run at the national championship. Pittsburgh outclassed all league foes in scoring margin (plus-13.1), ranking 11th in the nation, and leading the next-best Big East team (Louisville) by a staggering 2.4 points. A big part of that is the Panthers' stiff defense, limiting opponents to just 61.0 ppg, sliding into 22nd place nationally and second to Cincinnati in conference. The offense does more than hold its own against such competition, averaging 74.1 ppg to rank fifth in the league. Pitt also has the second- ranked field-goal percentage in conference (47.4), three-point field-goal percentage (39.0) and assists with 17.4 per game. As for rebounding, Pitt plays second fiddle to only potential third-round opponent Old Dominion in placing second in the country in rebounding margin at plus-13.1 as the Panthers wrangle 39.9 caroms per contest. One notable deficiency in Pittsburgh's game is free-throw shooting, standing 11th in the Big East at 67.2 percent. Leading the way for Pitt is junior Ashton Gibbs, who puts up 16.7 points per game to place sixth in conference. He adds 2.8 assists, 2.3 boards and sits second in the Big East with 95 three-pointers on a conference- best 48.0 percent shooting. Senior Brad Wanamaker kicks in 12.0 ppg, 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists, good for fifth in the league. Gilbert Brown is another solid all-around contributor, averaging 10.9 ppg, 4.3 boards and 2.7 assists. Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee help take care of things in the paint, with the former posting 9.0 ppg and 5.0 rpg and the latter 6.9 ppg and a team- high 7.6 rpg. McGhee's rebounding total stands fourth in the Big East while Robinson's 53.9 shooting percentage is the league's second-best. As if the Panthers didn't have enough depth, Travon Woodall checks in with 6.5 points and 3.3 assists per game.
UNC-Asheville had its day in the sun and now it's time for the Panthers to shine. There's a reason a 16-seed has never beaten a No. 1, and that won't be changing with Thursday's game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Pittsburgh 81, UNC-Asheville 62