So far this past week, Pittsburgh has handled two foes with much higher power rankings: Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference and Iowa State of the Big 12.
Now the 11th-seeded Panthers (24-11) get their shot at a Big East powerhouse — third-seeded Xavier (26-9) — in an NCAA Tournament Midwest Region second-round game on Sunday afternoon at Greensboro, N.C.
Can Pittsburgh keep carrying the banner for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has been maligned for a season so underwhelming that it finished behind the Mountain West in KenPom’s national rankings?
“One of the things that I think is unique about our league is that there are so many different styles,” Panthers coach Jeff Capel said.
“I just felt like we are prepared for the different styles that we could see as we enter into March. The thing you have to do if you are fortunate enough to win, you have to be able to adapt pretty quickly because the next one comes pretty quickly.”
Pittsburgh did a wonderful job stifling two poor offenses in Mississippi State and Iowa State — holding the clubs to a combined 100 points on 30.9 percent shooting from the floor. Xavier, however, shows up Sunday with the nation’s 12th-ranked offense at 81.1 points per game and the fourth-best 3-point percentage (39.1 percent).
The Musketeers also will show up with a heightened sense of awareness after nearly getting knocked off by 14th-seeded Kennesaw State on Friday. Xavier trailed by 13 points with just under 10 minutes to play before going on a 15-0 run that put it in position to secure the 72-67 win.
“I felt like we came out (and) we played timid,” Xavier guard Colby Jones said. “We made mistakes that we normally don’t make, but all credit to Kennesaw State. They’re a great defensive team. They made it hard for us.
“In this tournament, every team is a great team, so we have to come with our ‘A’ game every game. I, for sure, feel like this was a wakeup call and we know what we need to do, and we’re going to work over these next couple days to get it right.”
Xavier was so far out of its comfort zone Friday, Souley Boum and teammate Adam Kunkel spent an extended stretch screaming and gesticulating at each other during the final media timeout.
“It’s the heat of the moment,” Boum said. “We’ve got to be sharp. We’ve got to be on point with stuff – and if we get a little emotional, it’s nothing personal. It’s just we want to win. We want to win and we want to advance. There’s no hard feelings. We hugged it out in the locker room and we’re fine.”
Xavier coach Sean Miller spent four years running the point for Pittsburgh (1988-92) when the Panthers were trying to gain respect in the Big East. He probably identifies with the Panthers’ current crusade — as itemized by senior point guard Nelly Cummings.
“We’ve had something to prove since the preseason (ranking of) 14th in our conference,” Cummings said. “We’ve had a chip on our shoulder the first time we saw that. (Having to play in) Dayton was just another example of us having to put a chip on our shoulder again. We’re definitely looking forward to proving more.”
–Field Level Media