Pitt faces mirror image in NCAA tourney opener
SALT LAKE CITY — Their paths to the NCAA Tournament were paved with the same principles: defense, rebounding and a deep bench.
So forgive No. 8 seed Pitt (24-8) and No. 9 Wichita State (26-8) if they feel like they are looking at their mirror images when they meet at 1:40 p.m. Thursday in an NCAA West Region second-round game at EnergySolutions Arena.
“Except they're maybe a little bit bigger,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “They appear to be an inch or two bigger per man across the front line. Maybe our guys have grown an inch or two, but if it's a mirror image I hope we stack up physically with them.”
Their paths to the NCAA Sweet 16 goes through not only each other but top-ranked and No. 1 seed Gonzaga (31-2), which plays Belmont in the second round, and likely awaits the winner on Saturday. Pitt hasn't advanced that far since 2009, when it fell one shot short of the Final Four. Wichita State last reached the Sweet 16 in 2006.
“We've won a number of games here. We haven't won as many as we wanted to,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We have gotten to Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, and there are no easy ones. There is no bias to get that far. We've won a lot, but you always feel like you come up short if you don't win the whole thing.”
For Pitt, this marks a return to the NCAA tourney after snapping its 10-year streak last year. Wichita State is back for the second consecutive season, after entering as a No. 5 seed last March only to lose to No. 12 VCU. It is the second straight year the Shockers play a team seeded lower than expected — as the Panthers were projected as a No. 5 or 6 seed by bracketologists after finishing fourth in the Big East Conference — but that's not something Marshall takes personally.
“I don't think there's a conspiracy against Wichita State,” Marshall said. “We are a common denominator in that. … This Pitt team, I'm not privy to the discussions that go on in the seeding rooms and whatnot. I'm just glad to be a part.”
Statistically, the teams are almost identical, although Pitt plays in the Big East and Wichita State in the Missouri Valley.
Pitt averages 69.6 points to Wichita State's 69.4. The Panthers pull down 35.3 rebounds to the Shockers' 38.4.
“We have to come ready to rebound,” Wichita State forward Carl Hall said. “The winner on the boards is going to win the game.”
Those very words have come out of Dixon's mouth more than once this season. He constantly is emphasizing rebounding, as well as defense and depth.
Both teams play man-to-man defense and use a 10-man rotation that allows for a physical style.
Every Pitt player averages at least 11.7 minutes and 4.2 points per game, and the bench accounts for 26.1 points.
The Shockers' leading scorer, junior forward Cleanthony Earl, averages 13.6 points off the bench.
“The 10-deep thing has been successful,” Pitt swingman Lamar Patterson said. “There's no slack off, so you don't have to save anything. You can leave it on the court because we have 10 players that are all capable of scoring, passing and rebounding.
“It should be an (up-tempo) pace, probably, because everyone has fresh legs to throw in there. So this should be a fun game.”