PITTSBURGH — Conference play is nearly half over and Bracketology predictions have gained more weight as more data becomes available. As the conference schedules near their midway point, forecasts are increasingly optimistic that the Pitt Panthers will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Still, there is a lot of basketball left to play and Pitt still has some work to do before anyone can say they’re safely in the tournament field. That line between in and out is blurry and constantly moving, but the Panthers can check a few boxes and ensure their resume meets at least some of the criteria of an NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers’ baseline metrics have the outward appearance of one of the 68 best teams in college football. They currently sit at 60th in KenPom with the No. 43 offense and no. 80 defense in America against a schedule that ranks as the 62nd hardest in Division I. If the Selection Committee simply took the 68 best teams in college basketball, it’s pretty safe to assume Pitt would make it in. But they don’t and there’s some subjectivity to the process.
For most teams playing in a conference of Pitt’s caliber, 20 regular wins is the closest thing one can get to a “magic number”. Win 20 games and, by virtue of playing in a high-major conference, you’re more than likely to have beaten enough quality teams to earn consideration from the Selection Committee. After beating Louisville earlier this week, the Panthers have 13 victories and 12 games to play. 7-5 down the stretch gets them to that 20-win watermark but it matters where each of those seven wins and five losses fall.
Of the 12 games remaining, just four come against what would currently be Quad 1 or 2 opponents. That is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, there aren’t many chances for the Panthers to earn landmark wins but the rest of the competition isn’t particularly stiff. That makes the individual games more important than the big picture and their record in those games.
So beating up on the cellar dwellers in the conference like Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech – 207th, 342nd, 108th, 180th and 162nd, respectively, in the current NET ratings – is more important than earning marquee wins over Miami, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, who would all qualify as Quad 1 or 2 opponents. That’s not to say victories over those teams wouldn’t help the cause, but at this point avoiding bad losses is more crucial than earning great wins.
Who you beat and when is a crucial measurement for high-major teams on the tournament bubble. The NCAA says very specifically that wins over Quad 1 teams and losses to Quad 3 and 4 squads carry the most weight.
The Panthers are currently 3-2 against the top tier and 7-0 against the bottom two. Quad distinctions are fluid – a Quad 1 win in November might drop to a Quad 2 or 3 victory by March because teams win and lose unexpectedly – but Pitt has himself in a strong position at the moment.
The 2022-23 Panthers have drawn many comparisons to 2021-22 Wake Forest, who did not earn an NCAA Tournament berth despite winning 25 games, finishing fifth in the ACC and 35th in KenPom. Just two teams with 20 wins finished in the top-50 of KenPom and didn’t make the Big Dance that year. The key distinction is that this Pitt team has three wins in Quad 1 while the Demon Deacons had just one.
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Add it all up and the Panthers control their own destiny as the regular season hits the home stretch. They’ve already passed their toughest tests of this season and getting to the tournament requires simply winning some games against teams they’re better than. All they need to make some history is to take care of business.
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