A pair of No. 11 seeds looking to rekindle past NCAA Tournament success meet when Pittsburgh battles Mississippi State on Tuesday in a First Four game at Dayton, Ohio.
The winner will advance to play No. 6 seed Iowa State in the first round of the Midwest Regional on Friday in Greensboro, N.C.
The Panthers (22-11) earned their first at-large bid since the 2015-16 season and their 27th overall tournament appearance by virtue of a 14-6 record inside the Atlantic Coast Conference, good for third place in the regular season. The team lost in the ACC tournament quarterfinals to Duke, 96-69.
“I’m really just happy for these guys because they’ve worked, they fought and we’ve won, and I think it’s something that’s earned,” said Pitt head coach Jeff Capel. “For this group, to be the group to kind of get back to the big dance is a pretty cool, doggone thing.”
Pitt is led by All-ACC performers Jamarius Burton (15.6 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists) and Blake Hinson (15.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Both players have scored in double-figures 28 times this season. ACC Sixth Man of the Year Nike Sibande is averaging 8.5 points and 3.9 rebounds.
This is the first postseason appearance for the Panthers in five seasons under Capel, and the fourth time he has led a team into NCAA Tournament play. Capel was named the ACC Coach of the Year and is also among the top candidates for the Naismith National Coach of the Year.
Pittsburgh’s 11-game win improvement overall is tied for the second-best mark in program history, while their eight-game upswing in conference play is a program record.
Under first-year coach Chris Jans, Mississippi State (21-12) will make its 12th tournament appearance, eight of which have come since the 2001-02 season. The best run for the Bulldogs came in 1996 under then-head coach Richard Williams, when State defeated Virginia Commonwealth, Princeton, Connecticut and Cincinnati during its NCAA Final Four run.
The Bulldogs finished the season as one of the SEC’s hottest teams, winning nine of their last 13 games. The run has been highlighted by a trio of NET Quad 1 wins over No. 11 TCU, at Arkansas and against No. 25 Texas A&M.
“It was surreal,” said senior forward D.J. Jeffries. “A lot of teams were watching that didn’t get selected that thought they were. For us to be selected is a blessing. I thank God that we were in this situation and have this opportunity to be able to go dancing. Now we’ve just got to go take advantage of our opportunity.”
Only Will McNair Jr., who reached the tournament with Jans last season at New Mexico State, has experience in the tourney.
“It felt like a big relief off my back,” Jeffries said. “You’ve been fighting and striving since your freshman year to get here, and I finally got here after three years. It’s a blessing and I’m excited. I’m just ready to get to business and go out there and play on the big stage for the first time.”
–Field Level Media