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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers take on Pittsburgh Panthers

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NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As the Virginia Cavaliers basketball team nears the end of the regular season, things are getting interesting. The ACC tournament is just 10 days away and the NCAA tournament kicks off in 17 days.

The Hoos final two ACC games are against likely NCAA tournament teams Louisville and Syracuse. However barring a miraculous run to the ACC Tournament Championship, the Pittsburgh Panthers will not be dancing in March. With a double-bye in the ACC Tourney, there’s a good chance that Virginia will be facing NCAA caliber teams there as well.

In other words, there is a good chance that is the last game the Hoos will play against a non-NCAA tournament team. Pitt is 12-15 (2-12). That’s not good. They’ve also lost 11 in a row. They rank 93rd on KenPom.

The Panthers’ two ACC wins have come over Louisville and FSU, both NCAA Tournament teams. Both of those wins came at home, whereas this game is in Charlottesville. The Panthers actually have not won a road game all year, though they are 2-0 in neutral site games.

Maybe you remember last year’s Pitt game. The score at halftime was 30-7. Yes, the Panthers had just seven points in the first half. The final score was 66-37, which looks respectable in comparison. Of those 37 points, just 13 return. Of the eight Pitt players who scored, just three return. Last year’s team was young. Then, three promising freshmen transferred after head coach Kevin Stallings was fired. New head coach Jeff Capel basically had to start over from scratch.

Senior JUCO transfer Jared Wilson-Frame had nine in last year’s game. He’s back, and although he’s second on the team in scoring, he’s probably their best offensive player. He’s a deadly shooter from outside, making 39% on over seven attempts per game. He’ll likely face off against DeAndre Hunter, which is a big mismatch for the Hoos.

This isn’t exactly the prettiest of shots and a step-back trey with 15 left on the shot clock may not be the best shot. But Wilson-Frame has that ability.

The Panthers’ leading scorer is freshman PG Xavier Johnson, from Arlington, VA. In case you were wondering, Tony Bennett looked at him, but did not offer. Johnson leads the team in scoring and assists, and is among the nation’s leaders in assist rate (second in the ACC behind Justin Robinson...Ty Jerome is third). Johnson is also a good shooter (39%) and gets to the line a lot. Those things all help him overcome a sky-high turnover rate. He averages about 4.6 assists per game, and 3.8 turnovers per game. That gives him an a/to ratio of just 1.2, which is not good for a PG. It’s also not surprising for a freshman PG on a bad team. Johnson will get better.

Starting in the backcourt with Johnson is another freshman, Trey McGowens. McGowens is a pure scorer who excels off the bounce and is among the nation’s leaders in FT rate. He scored 30+ in both of Pitt’s ACC wins, with a high of 17 in their losses. If Pitt is going to win this game, it’s likely McGowans leading them to victory.

This is what McGowens can do. He’s just a 30% shooter from deep, but he can get into the lane pretty much at will. He can finish inside, as he does here. But he also draws contact. This could have easily been a foul. He and Kyle Guy will see a lot of each other in this contest.

Like Jeff Capel teams in the past, the Panthers like to get out in transition. They’ll pick up full court, or three-quarters court. They want to force turnovers, but more importantly, they want to make the offense uncomfortable. Unlike some pressure defenses, the goal isn’t to speed up the offense, it’s to slow down the offense. Pitt plays at the 183rd fastest pace in the nation. But their offense is very fast (85th), while their defense is very slow (257th).

Because Johnson and McGowans are young and on the smaller side (6’3” 185), Pitt has run a bit of zone this year. Mostly of the 2-3 variety.

This is a good look at the setup of the zone. McGowens is too far from Clemson’s shooter on the wing and can’t get over in time to defend the open jumper. This is the type of shot that is often easy to find against the zone. If you make those shots, you beat the zone.

On Monday, the Hoos face Syracuse, who play a similar zone. The difference here is that Syracuse’s defenders and 6’5” and 6’6”, which give them more reach to defend shots. Still, if you can make those outside shots, you can bust the zone.

Unlike Syracuse, Pitt won’t play zone all game. They’ll switch back and forth between man defense and zone. It’ll depend on who’s on the floor and how the defense is performing.

The three leading scorers for Pitt are all perimeter players. They are also the top three in shot attempts. Yes, those three guys are the best scorers Pitt has, but they also don’t have much depth on the perimeter. Capel goes eight deep, and only Sidy N’Dir (graduate transfer from New Mexico State) comes off the bench in the backcourt. There is more depth up front, as four guys average between 17 and 25 minutes per game. Topping that list is freshman lefty Au’Diese Toney, a 6’6” 210 wing who is strong enough to bang inside against bigger players but can also play on the perimeter. Toney is listed on the roster as a Guard, but has been running at PF for much of the season.

Behind Toney is St John’s transfer Malik Ellison. Also listed as a guard, Ellison is similar sized to Toney and also plays down low. Ellison is a better defender, but has little offensive game. Ellison has actually started 16 times, including several times alongside Toney. Capel has also run a four-guard lineup with Wilson-Frame at PF. The zone lets him get away with this without too much loss defensively.

The only “true” big men on the roster for Pitt are sophomore Terrell Brown and junior Kene Chukwuka. Brown is an elite shot blocker (12th in the nation in block rate) and has great athleticism. But at 6’10” 230, he can be pushed around by stronger post men. He gets a lot of his points either in transition or off the offensive glass. He doesn’t do a ton else on offense, but if you don’t put a body on him, he’ll do this:

Chukwuka has more offensive game, and is really the only post scorer Pitt has. He’s not near the shot blocker that Brown is, but might be a better post defender. Both guys struggle with fouls, and split minutes pretty evenly. Pitt has played 28 games, Brown has started 13 while Chukwuka has started 15 times.

There is talent on this team, and Capel is a good coach. It’s not that long ago when Pitt was a perennial NCAA Tournament team under Jamie Dixon (including as a 1 seed in 2011). They could get there again. But right now this team is too young and too inconsistent.