Let's be honest: If this year's ACC slate were a dinner, BC and GT were merely appetizers. The Eagles and Yellow Jackets aren't exactly a jumbo shrimp cocktail either, if you know what I'm saying. Let's call them chips & salsa, respectively. Road game at Pitt? Well, roll up your sleeves, ask your server for an extra napkin, and get ready for a fat plate of chicken nachos. The Panthers may not be Duke or Syracuse, but this is an extremely stern test and a possible indicator of things to come.
Maryland's last road game at a traditional power, Ohio State, was an outright disaster in which the Terps were humiliated and probably written off by national college basketball media and fans alike. If they didn't dismiss the team on the spot that night, then barely beating Florida Atlantic made the case against them even stronger, and then losing authoritatively at home to Boston University slammed it shut. As a result, Seth Allen's return, improved play vs. Tulsa and NC Central, and a nifty little wire-to-wire win over Ga. Tech were games that mattered to nobody but us Maryland fans. Beyond our little corner of world, the Terps are still completely in the shadows. How do they change that perception? A win at Pitt on ESPNU would definitely start the process of rebuilding credibility as a contender, although in fairness, it would also raise questions about Pitt, which is 13-1 but hasn't beaten -- or played -- a ranked team yet. In any case, the Panthers, as always, are no slouch. Far from it, in fact. Let's take a closer look.
Pitt was 24-9 last year in their final campaign in the Big East and was a decisive first-round NCAA ouster as an 8-seed to Witchita State. The Panthers lost five players from their rotation, including 7-foot Steven Adams, who was the 12th pick in last year's NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. So, like Maryland, Pitt is adjusting to life without having a towering shot-blocker in the middle, and, like Maryland, Pitt is also adjusting to life with a lineup of guys who are 6-9 or smaller. The good news for Pitt is that all three returners from last year's rotation were starters, and we'll get to them right now.
Players to watch
Lamar Patterson, senior, 6'5"
Patterson is a player you just have to like. He's been at Pitt forever, it seems. He's always been a rotation guy and a do-everything role player. And finally, after paying his dues and proving his mettle, Patterson is Pitt's star player and biggest weapon. He's leading the Panthers in minutes (29.9), scoring (17.2), assists (4.6) and 3-pointers (26 at a solid 41.9%), while also contributing a solid 4.6 rebounds per game and hitting 52 percent from the field and 78 percent from the line. Patterson is a just a good, smart, experienced all-around player who will lead the Panthers however far they go this year. The good news is that Patterson is the type of player Maryland matches up OK with, as anyone from Layman, Wells, Faust or Allen could take turns checking him.
Talib Zanna, senior, 6'9"
There's a stomach-punch element to this Pitt team that I'll begin to address right here. Zanna is one of three key players (and four total on the roster) that Pitt pulled out of our own back yard. Think Maryland would like to have a 6-9 senior center averaging 12 points and eight boards? Yeah, me too. And the kid went to Bishop McNamara. When he committed to Pitt back in 2008, Maryland wasn't even on his list. Beyond that I don't know what happened with his recruitment. Anyway, Zanna plays heavy, heavy minutes and is the best shot blocker on a team that doesn't really block shots. Though his rebounding average is solid, he's also something less than consistent as he had huge interior games against Lehigh (14 boards) and Youngstown (15) but then also had five games in which he pulled down five or less boards. He's not the type of big man we can't manage. In fact, I'd like to think that Shaq should be able to muscle around with him pretty well.
Cameron Wright, junior, 6'4"
Wright is a pure off-guard and key defender, likely to spend his evening in front of Dez Wells and Seth Allen. This is a great athlete and glue guy who does all the little things well. He comes about his 11.1 PPG scoring average honestly, reaching double digits in nine of Pitt's 14 games with a season high of 20 vs. Duquesne. If Maryland isn't on its game defensively, it'll be Wright making the sneaky weakside plays, stealing offensive rebounds and just generally being an all-around nuisance. By the way, he's the Panthers' runaway leader in steals with 2.3 per game, ranking him in the top 30 nationally.
Durand Johnson, sophomore, 6'6"
Here's another familiar name for you followers of local prep basketball and recruiting in general. Johnson was a very highly touted Baltimore prospect (Lake Clifton) who reclassified and went to Brewster Prep, but who eliminated Maryland early and selected Pitt out of a final three that also included UConn and FSU. He's rangy and athletic, he can shoot and rebound, and Pitt fans are hopeful he's a star on the rise. He's getting his chance to prove that this year with about 20 minutes a game of playing time and 8.1 PPG, but he's been hit or miss and played a season-low eight minutes against NC State on Saturday.
James Robinson, sophomore, 6'3"
I know, I'm being borderline mean at this point, but we all remember Robinson, a 4-star DeMatha point guard who eliminated Maryland when he announced a top five of Pitt, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia and UCLA. Now he's Pitt's second-year starter averaging about eight points and four assists with a very nice turnover average of 0.8 per game. I love Robinson and wish he was wearing red in this game. Water under the bridge.
Jamel Artis, freshman, 6'7"
Now I'm just antagonizing you. Artis isn't even that key of a player, but the young power forward (from, um, BALTIMORE) is getting 15.5 minutes per game and averaging five points and three rebounds. Artis actually never got the Maryland offer he seemed to indicate he wanted in old quotes, but then Pitt was easily his best option (Miami, Rutgers, USF, LaSalle) and he jumped at it.
This is a hot-button issue in some corners of this site, but I would argue a strength is that their starting guards, Robinson and Wright, have clear, defined position-based responsibilities. Pitt is a terrific passing team at 17 assists per game - 16th in the nation! - and that boils down to good coaching and good, unselfish guard play. It also leads to solid team field-goal shooting of 48 percent (47th nationally).
Like Maryland, Pitt hasn't found its identity as an interior team. The Panthers grab 37.9 rebounds per game (87th in the nation) and though Zanna will be by far the headliner big man in a Pitt-Maryland matchup, he doesn't have much company inside and Maryland has a decided advantage in team height when you factor in not just the team's three-headed center, but also the size Layman and Smo bring to the table from the wings. Can the Terps exploit that? Great question.
KenPom predicts a 75-63 Pittsburgh win, giving the Panthers an 88% chance of winning. Clearly, the smart thing to do here would be to make the easy pick of a Pitt win at home. Heck, I could even pretend I was being nice to Maryland by saying it'll be closer than KenPom thinks it will be, but still do the safe thing and pick Pitt.
I'll be neither smart nor safe. Pitt is a good team and a better program, but the Panthers' signature win came on the road at NC State (who hasn't beaten anyone either) on Saturday. Maryland is quietly building confidence and with Allen in the fold and with Faust playing well, the Terps can now score many, many different ways. Is Pitt going to respect Maryland enough looking at what they've accomplished this year? No, they aren't. And Turge will have the boys riled up for a huge road win that gets this team back in the discussion. Maryland 75, Pitt 68.