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In a Friday afternoon matinee in the Midwest Region, the no. 6 seed Iowa State Cyclones will take on the no. 11 seed Pitt Panthers/Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Cyclones are hoping that playing in the Big 12 has prepared them for success in the NCAA Tournament whereas the Panthers/Bulldogs are hoping to be the latest team to turn a win in the play-in round into a deep tournament run. The Panthers defeated the Bulldogs in a nail-biter on Tuesday night and hope to carry that momentum into Friday’s game against Iowa State.
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Before the season, the Panthers looked like a long shot to be anywhere near the NCAA Tournament, as Pitt was picked to finish second to last in the ACC. However, they entered the final game of the regular season with a chance to win the conference title, ultimately finishing one game out of first place. But keep in mind the Panthers lost four of their last seven games prior to Tuesday’s win, so they didn’t exactly close out the season playing their best.
It’s also fair to question if Pitt is tournament-ready after going just 6-5 against teams in the NCAA Tournament this season. Three of those five wins came against double-digit seeds and before beating Mississippi State, Pitt’s last win over a team in the Big Dance came on January 28. That explains why the Panthers just barely made it into the field of 68.
Nevertheless, the Panthers proved that they belong by escaping with a narrow win over Mississippi State on Tuesday. Pitt played the game without center Federiko and endured most of the game with leading scorer Jamarius Burton in foul trouble. But the gritty Panthers found a way to survive and advance, which is the name of the game in March Madness.
As mentioned, Burton is the leading scorer on the Panthers, as both he and Blake Hinson averaged 15.6 points per game during the season. Hinson is also the team’s leading rebounder at 6.2 boards per game and leads the Panthers with the most three-pointers made this year. He will have to be strong on the boards against Iowa State if Federiko’s injury keeps him out of Friday’s game.
Even if Federiko is able to play, the Panthers are a little light in the frontcourt. On Tuesday, they had to rely heavily on twin freshmen forwards Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham. But the Pitt backcourt is strong with Burton joined by Nelly Cummings and Greg Elliott. The two grad transfers average 11 and 10.4 points per game, respectively with Cummings also leading the team with 4.8 assists per game.
From the outside, the Cyclones look like they had an up-and-down season, finishing just 9-9 in the Big 12. But given the strength of the Big 12 this season, that’s a respectable record, even with Iowa State only finishing the regular season 19-13. On the other hand, the Cyclones were just 4-9 over their last 13 games of the season. They were ranked as high as no. 12 in the polls during the season, although there is some concern that Iowa State peaked too early and isn’t playing its best heading into the Big Dance.
That being said, there is no denying the Cyclones are capable of beating quality teams. Iowa State’s resume includes three wins over Baylor and two over TCU, as well as victories over Kansas, Texas, and Texas State. On the other hand, they were oddly vulnerable against weaker teams, finishing a combined 2-6 against the four Big 12 teams that finished below them in the standings. Despite a propensity for big wins, the Cyclones were just 3-8 in true road games this season and 8-9 against teams in the NCAA Tournament. All eight of those wins came against other Big 12 teams, as Iowa State lost lopsided early-season games against UConn and Iowa while early-season wins against Villanova and North Carolina didn’t end up being particularly impressive on Selection Sunday.
Even if Iowa State isn’t the most potent offensive team in the Big Dance, the Cyclones have a balanced attack with six players averaging at least seven points per game. That group is led by the backcourt duo of Jaren Holmes and Gabe Kalscheur, who average 13.4 and 12.9 points per game, respectively. Holmes helped to pace the ISU offense with 3.3 assists per game while Kalscheur was a Second-Team All-Big-12 selection.
Iowa State also received important contributions this year from Tamin Lipsey, who made the Big 12’s All-Freshman Team and led the Cyclones with 4.5 assists per game, adding to a deep backcourt. St. Bonaventure transfer Sun Osunniyi was also one of the Big 12's best newcomers after averaging 8.5 points and 1.1 blocks per game, helping the Cyclones at both ends of the court.
In a way, Pitt’s win over Mississippi State is good preparation for facing Iowa State. Both Mississippi State and Iowa State rank in the top 10 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Despite the win, the Panthers have held 16 points below their scoring average. They were clearly bothered by MSU’s defense, not taking as many perimeter shots as they typically do.
As for Iowa State, they held teams to just 62.8 points per game on the season, which means the Cyclones should be able to draw the Panthers into another low-scoring defensive slugfest. The caveat is whether the Cyclones can generate enough offense to slip past the Panthers. During their 4-9 stretch to close out the season, Iowa State was held to 61 points or less six times. That might not be enough to beat the Panthers, who shoot 36% from three-point range and can get hot from the perimeter.
In the end, Pitt will make this a competitive game but the Cyclones will escape with a win. The Panthers were out-rebounded by 21 during Tuesday’s win over Mississippi State, and they could face a similar obstacle on Friday. Iowa State will be able to take advantage of Pitt’s lack of depth in the frontcourt and rebounding woes and will be able to execute offensively a little better than Mississippi State did against Pitt on Tuesday. That will be just enough to send the Cyclones to the Round of 32.
Location: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, North Carolina
Game Time & Date: 3:10 EST on Friday, March 17
TV Network: truTV
Streaming: NCAA March Madness Live App
I am a huge sports fan; locally, many know me as the guy who does the PA for our high school football team on Friday nights. Having grown up in Michigan, I am a sports fan of all the Detroit teams, and at the college level, I love Michigan State sports.More info on Caleb Tallman
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