UConn and the ACC: The One That Got Away

Posted by Chris Kehoe on April 4th, 2014

When the most recent jumble of conference realignment was underway, the ACC squarely targeted the Big East for its newest conquests. Commissioner John Swofford wanted to add programs that were strong in the revenue sports of football and basketball, holding distinctive geographic locations that would open up the conference to new fans and marketing possibilities. The ACC won out in a big way, snagging prominent athletic programs at Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh from the old Big East. While these programs are have had varying degrees of success in the sport that drives realignment, Notre Dame is the only football name brand (and the Irish retained their football independence). So while the current athletic landscape is shaped by the financial juggernaut that is college football, the ACC locked up some of the country’s most elite basketball programs.

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

So while the ACC may have sought greater football legitimacy as its primary goal, the league also landed two massively successful basketball programs in Syracuse and Louisville. As a result, the ACC may very well have positioned itself as the basketball conference of the future, made up of most if not all of the best programs up and down the East Coast. That is, with one notable exception. As the league plundered the Big East, it may have made a drastic mistake from a basketball perspective. The ACC left behind a basketball powerhouse in its own right, Connecticut, a school that all but pleaded for entry into the ACC and a Final Four participant in a season when no conference team made it past the Sweet Sixteen. Recall the silly preseason talk about how the ACC was supposed to be ‘the best ever’, and it leaves you wondering if the exclusion of a program like UConn was the right move. The basketball program based in Storrs has had continued and sustained excellence in the sport over a long period of time, winning the national title three times since 1999 (as well as 2004 and 2011), and putting 13 players into the NBA as lottery picks since 1994. Few programs can match that record.

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Virginia Tech Earns Instant Credibility With Hire of Buzz Williams

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 25th, 2014

When Virginia Tech announced on Friday that it had poached head coach Buzz Williams from Marquette to replace the recently-fired James Johnson, the immediate reaction was that of general astonishment. Why on Earth would Williams leave a team he’d taken to the postseason in five out of six years on the bench to a program that had only reached the Big Dance once since 1996 and has finished last in the ACC three years running? While the reasons, thoroughly outlined here, became more apparent in the ensuing days, the real story is the amazing acquisition made by new Virginia Tech athletic director, Whit Babcock. The hiring of Williams and the way it managed to circle all of the major media outlets during the opening weekend of NCAA Tournament play, gave the Hokies basketball program something it hasn’t experienced in years: instant credibility.

Buzz Williams Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA's (cbssports.com)

Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA Tournament (cbssports.com)

Williams oversaw a very successful Marquette program in the Big East, going an impressive 139-69 in his six years at the helm and taking the school to two Sweet Sixteen appearances and an Elite Eight run. No doubt his ability to navigate a difficult conference schedule (prior to realignment) and enjoy postseason success was extremely attractive to a Hokies program just trying to get noticed. Williams obviously looked around the ravaged Big East — a conference that the ACC raided to bring in Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh — and saw a chance to jump to the premier basketball conference in the land to match wits with four Hall of Fame coaches in Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski. Some may have originally seen the move as a bizarre one (especially Williams’ pay cut from $3 million to $2.3 million annually) , but coupling the chance to compete in the new-look ACC with the uncertainty in the Marquette administration as well as the state of the weakened Big East, the decision began to make more sense.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 77, #2 Villanova 65

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 22nd, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Shabazz Napier had a big night, and the Huskies are heading to the Sweet Sixteen. (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Shabazz Napier had a big night, and the Huskies are heading to the Sweet Sixteen. (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

  1. Shabazz Napier was awesome. Killer crossovers, in-your-face threes, acrobatic layups – Napier took the game over in the second half like only he could. The senior guard scored 21 points in the final 20 minutes – including three straight triples midway through the period – to give Connecticut the edge in what had looked to be a barnburner. Even a late, seemingly serious ankle injury couldn’t stop the AAC Player of the Year. After sitting out a minute or two of action, Napier returned with a bang, making a crucial reverse layin and nailing several big free throws to effectively finish off the Wildcats. He ended the night with 25 points, just one more than he scored against Saint Joseph’s on Thursday, but the difference was his efficiency: Napier shot 9-of-13 from the field and 4-of-8 from distance.
  2. The Huskies’ defense shined during key stretches. Connecticut entered the night ranked 15th in the country in defensive efficiency, and that stinginess was on full display during several crucial periods against Villanova. When the Huskies trailed 20-11 at the 10-minute mark of the first half, their defense promptly shut out the Wildcats for over nine straight minutes and enabled the offense to chip away at the lead. Then, following a back-and-forth start to the second half, Connecticut asserted itself on the interior and prevented Jay Wright’s club from finding any good looks in the paint. It put a lot of pressure on Villanova’s three-point shooters, who were unable to carry the full load.
  3. Villanova probably overachieved in 2013-14, and it will be back. Many people felt the Wildcats were the most vulnerable #2 seed entering the NCAA Tournament, and they were probably correct. The fact is that this team likely won more games than it should have this season, especially considering their lack of NBA-caliber talent (according to projections) and limited experience. But the good news for Jay Wright is that – aside from James Bell – every significant contributor returns to the Main Line next year. Expect very good things out of Villanova in 2014-15.

Star of the GameShabazz Napier (25 points, five rebounds, three assists, 9-of-13 FG). Who else? The star point guard was extremely efficient and took the game over in the second half, nailing big shot after big shot and propelling Connecticut on to the Sweet Sixteen.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Villanova 73, #15 Milwaukee 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova will need to be better on Saturday in order to beat Connecticut.  (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

Villanova will need to be better on Saturday in order to beat Connecticut. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

  1. Villanova can’t shoot like this and expect to go anywhere. Three-point shooting is a big component of the Wildcats’ offense, and they were absolutely awful from behind the arc tonight. After starting an ice-cold 0-of-17, Villanova finished just 4-of-23 from distance. James Bell, the team’s most relied-upon shooter, went 0-of-8. It proved to be alright against Milwaukee, because the defense was stout – holding the Panthers to 28.6 percent shooting from the floor – but the Big East regular season champs will not get away with similar results against Connecticut on Saturday, especially with the Huskies’ strong interior defense.
  2. We didn’t learn much about the Wildcats. Following Villanova’s Big East tournament loss to Seton Hall last week, no one really knew what to make of the Wildcats heading into the Big Dance. Sure, they are a #2 seed and yes, they won 28 games this season, but nothing really jumps off the page about this team. Are they a Final Four contender or a flawed group susceptible to an early upset? Unfortunately, nothing about their ho-hum victory over the Panthers answered that question. They never looked dominant – their lead wasn’t blown open until the last five minutes – but they also never looked truly threatened. The jury’s still out on these guys.
  3. Can they contain Shabazz Napier in the same way they contained Jordan Aaron? Milwaukee guard Jordan Aaron is no Shabazz Napier, but he is a solid player who can create his own shot and score in bunches. Villanova shut him down tonight, limiting the senior to just six points on 1-of-15 shooting. Whatever blueprint they used against the Panthers’ best player, they might want to consider using against Napier this weekend as well.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Teams

Posted by George Hershey on March 16th, 2014

Four Big East teams were selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament, a solid showing for the new league. At one point it looked like up to six teams could be dancing, but even more recently it was a realistic possibility that only two teams would earn bids. Below are a few quick thoughts on the four Big East selections.

Jay Wright and the Wildcats should be excited about their chances

Jay Wright and the Wildcats should be excited about their chances

  • Villanova has to be very happy about its region: The Wildcats will play in Buffalo the first weekend, and if they make it to the second week, will remain nearby at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats will miss ssome of the most dangerous top-three seeds, such as Duke and Syracuse, and will probably face Iowa State, a beatable Big 12 team with some flaws, in the Sweet Sixteen. The top seed in the region is Virginia, a great team deserving of the honor, but Villanova was only one spot behind them on the official seed list, so Jay Wright’s team should be feeling confident that it can beat anybody in the region.
  • Creighton’s #3 seed was surprising: Most, including Doug McDermott, thought that the Bluejays would be a #4 seed in this Tournament, but they ended up on the #3 line, similar to Marquette’s placement a year ago. The Bluejays do not have the easiest path, with a potential second game against Baylor in San Antonio and a trip to Anaheim for the second week if they advance that far. Creighton is similar to Wisconsin in many ways and should match up well if they are to play the Badgers. If they end up playing Arizona for a spot in the Final Four, Ethan Wragge could exploit the Wildcats’ frontcourt by drawing them outside their comfort zones.

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Otskey’s Observations: Episode XV, Player and Coach of the Year Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 6th, 2014

Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.

As the college basketball regular season wraps up, I thought this would be a good time to run down my Coaches of the Year and Players of the Year in each of the major conferences. Here goes…

ACC

  • POY: T.J. Warren, NC State (24.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG). Warren has been a tremendous bright spot on an otherwise mediocre Wolfpack squad. Since a rough four-point game against Virginia on January 11, Warren has scored at least 20 points in every game he has played (he missed one game due to injury). At 6’8” and an athletic 215 pounds, Warren is a match-up problem for nearly every opponent. He has had eight 30+ point games (only one fewer than Doug McDermott), including Monday’s 41-point explosion in a road win at Pittsburgh. Some may disagree because NC State is not at the top of the ACC, but a season like this where Warren brought it night after night deserves special recognition.
Tony Bennett has done a tremendous job at Virginia. (virginiasports.com)

Tony Bennett has done a tremendous job at Virginia. (virginiasports.com)

  • COY: Tony Bennett, Virginia (25-5, 16-1 ACC). Bennett’s teams have always been terrific defensively and this one is no exception. Ranked third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, Virginia has allowed only four ACC opponents to score 60 or more points this season. Even in a league with a tempo as slow as this year’s ACC, that is a remarkable statistic. Virginia was a trendy surprise pick but I am not sure anyone thought it would turn out to be this good. The Cavaliers were picked fourth in the preseason ACC poll but currently hold a three-game lead over Syracuse and North Carolina with just one game to play.

American

  • POY: Russ Smith, Louisville (18.0 PPG, 4.5 APG, 2.0 SPG). This was a really close call between Smith and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick but I am giving Smith the slightest of edges. Both mean so much to their respective teams but Smith’s decision to return to Louisville for his senior year has proven to be a wise one. Smith is enjoying the best shooting season of his career (46.8 percent) and has matured greatly. He is playing smarter and has led this Louisville team to a 25-5 overall record. The Cardinals again have the look of a Final Four contender and Smith is the primary reason why.

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Breaking Down the Big East Bubble Teams

Posted by Todd Keryc on February 25th, 2014

Last week we examined the two-horse race between Creighton and Villanova to determine the Big East regular season champion. Today we take a look at the teams on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament, those who currently sit on what is commonly referred to as the bubble. As crazy as it seems, the two co-leaders are the only Big East teams currently assured of making the NCAA Tournament. At the other end of the spectrum, teams such as Butler, DePaul and Seton Hall can only get in by winning the conference tournament. That leaves five teams — half of the league — sitting in various positions ranging from “in but not out of the woods” to “we have to run the table.” Let’s take a look at the status of each.

XAVIER

Chris Mack is Safe For Now But Shouldn't 'Get too Comfortable (Getty)

Chris Mack is Safe For Now But Shouldn’t ‘Get too Comfortable (Getty)

Current Status: In But Be Careful. The Musketeers are the likeliest third Big East team in the field. They have 18 wins and sit tied for third in the conference standings. They have a strong early-season win over Cincinnati but that is their only RPI top 50 victory. On the flip side, they only have one loss against a team outside of the RPI top 150 and only two total against teams below the top 100. Xavier also has wins against fellow bubble-mates Tennessee, St. John’s, Providence, Georgetown and Marquette. Of course, they’ve also lost to all of those teams except St. John’s.

Looking Ahead: Crunch Time. There are two ways of looking at Xavier’s remaining schedule. One is that they have several chances to register big wins that could seal their bid. The other way is to say they have a very difficult schedule down the stretch. The Musketeers get both Creighton and Villanova at home, which gives them a huge chance to score a second marquee win and lift their RPI into the top 50. They also have St. John’s on the road in a bubble game and Seton Hall in a chance for revenge after the Pirates beat them in Ohio earlier this season.

Prediction: In. Xavier has the kind of home court advantage that could pull off one, if not both, of the big upset chances remaining on their schedule. Look for them to upset a Big East big boy and big-time it back to the Big Dance.

ST JOHN’S

Current Status: Square on the Bubble. The Johnnies have used a recent run to work their way very much into NCAA Tournament consideration. They have won nine of their last 11 games and the only losses are at Creighton by three and at Villanova by three. Next to the dynamic duo at the top of the Big East standings, the Red Storm have been the best team over the last month. However, their RPI sits in the 50s, they are only 1-5 against the RPI top 50, and they have losses to Penn State and DePaul sitting as black eyes on their resume. What they have going for them is a terrific win against Creighton and they have been red hot (pun intended) over the last month of action.

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Two Weeks Remaining: Assessing Big East Regular Season Title Contenders

Posted by Todd Keryc on February 21st, 2014

The latest NCAA Tournament bracket projections put somewhere in the neighborhood of four to six Big East teams in the Big Dance. Xavier is on the inside looking out for the moment, with help from a big non-conference win over Cincinnati. Providence, St. John’s and Georgetown are all hovering on the bubble, their respective fates certain to be determined over the season’s final few weeks. Creighton and Villanova are the only total locks, each heading for top four seeds and possible protected first-week locations barring a late collapse.

For both Doug McDermott and James Bell, much is still up for grabs for Creighton and Villanova.

For both Doug McDermott and James Bell, much is still up for grabs for Creighton and Villanova.

While many eyes are focused solely on the Big East bubble (which will ultimately make or break the realigned conference’s debut) the regular season champion remains very much in doubt. It’s all but certain that either Creighton or Villanova will claim it, but they are about to begin a two-week sprint to the finish. Sure, teams are remembered for what they do in the NCAA Tournament but a banner will be hung somewhere for winning the Big East regular season, so let’s assess which team has the advantage down the stretch. In the preseason poll, the pair were picked to finish third and fourth, respectively — yet they have dominated this maiden Big East season. Villanova is 11-2 in conference play, with both losses coming against Creighton. The Bluejays are 12-2, with only a pair of road losses, as well as the clear conference (and likely national) Player of the Year, Doug McDermott, and that pair of dominant performances against Villanova.

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Three Thoughts as Xavier Dominated Butler Last Night

Posted by WCarey on February 12th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Tuesday night’s game between Xavier and Butler in Indianapolis.

Xavier began February quite ominously with a home loss to Seton Hall and a 23-point defeat at Villanova. Coupling those two losses with a loss at Providence to end January, the Musketeers went from a team that was projected as a lock for the NCAA Tournament to a team on the bubble. Riding a three-game losing streak, Xavier was able to get back on the winning track last Saturday with a hotly contested home victory over Providence. With games at Butler and at Marquette next on its schedule, Chris Mack’s team was presented with a great opportunity to score two more Big East road wins and help improve its overall NCAA Tournament résumé in the process. The Musketeers passed the first test on Tuesday night with a thoroughly dominating 64-50 win over Butler in Indianapolis. The following are three thoughts from last evening’s action.

Xavier Got the Sweep of Butler Last Night

Xavier Got the Sweep of Butler Last Night, as the New Big East Programs Move in Opposite Directions

  1. Xavier’s Defensive Effort Was Impressive. In the Musketeers’ victory over Providence on Saturday, they held the Friars to just 53 total points and a 37.5 percent shooting mark from the field. That defensive intensity carried over to Tuesday, as Butler was held to just 50 points on the evening. The half-century mark scored by Butler was significantly below its season average of 70.9 points per game and represented the team’s lowest scoring output of the season. Xavier’s strong field goal percentage defense was on display once again, as Butler was held to just 34 percent shooting on the evening. Musketeers’ junior guard Dee Davis was tasked with the role of guarding leading scorer Kellen Dunham and he completed it with great success, as Dunham finished the evening with just two points on 1-of-10 shooting. Xavier’s interior defense was also suffocating given the fact that Butler’s starting frontline of Khyle Marshall, Kameron Woods and Andrew Chrabascz finished the evening a combined 5-of-17 from the floor. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking The Panic Meter: Which Teams Should Really Worry About Their January Swoons?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 24th, 2014

As Brian Otskey noted earlier this week, January losing streaks have caused a number of once-top teams to tumble down, and in some cases, out of the polls. The rigors of conference play have deflowered those gaudy late December records, prompting a number of far-sooner-than-expected reality checks. Past history will tell you that some of these January slumps will be reduced to mere blips on the radar by March (e.g., the defending champion Louisville Cardinals lost three in a row in the first month of 2013), while others are indeed the beginning of a fade into college hoops oblivion. Wondering about future prospects for fading powers? Here’s a look at where the panic meter should be (10=High Panic, 1=Nothing to worry about) for five of college basketball’s most downward-trending squads.

Georgetown: Panic Meter=10

John Thompson III, Markel Starks And Georgetown Suddenly Have Their Backs Against The Wall

John Thompson III, Markel Starks And Georgetown Suddenly Have Their Backs Against The Wall

With Jabril Trawick not expected back anytime soon (broken jaw), and Josh Smith out indefinitely due to academics (don’t forget that Greg Whittington’s “indefinite” academic suspension a year ago eventually caused him to miss the Hoyas’ final 19 contests), Georgetown is clearly undermanned right now. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been brilliant, and Markel Starks intermittently so, but finding offensive contributions from players who aren’t 6’2” guards has proven impossible since Smith‘s suspension began. With the 10-day forecast looking especially gloomy — top-15 teams Creighton, Villanova and Michigan State are up next for JT3’s club – Georgetown’s season could be very close to finished by the time Super Bowl Sunday arrives. Even if the Hoyas can get Smith and Trawick back by early February, a challenging closing stretch awaits: Six of Georgetown’s final seven opponents are currently ranked in KenPom’s top 75. It’s probably not the way Georgetown wanted to find March peace, but Hoyas’ fans may finally avoid their annual NCAA Tournament heartbreak.

Wisconsin: Panic Meter= 1

If you play basketball in the Big Ten, you are going to lose games. The league is simply too strong top-to-bottom to cruise the entire winter without resistance. Yes, Michigan and Michigan State – losses are coming for you as well (beginning for one of the two on Saturday). In any case, Wisconsin should be just fine. Aside from some struggles from three-point range (likely temporary), the uber-efficient Badgers’ offense has continued to roll, even through their current three-game losing streak. The defense could stand to improve marginally (55th nationally in defensive efficiency), but there is just too much offensive firepower in Madison for Bucky’s train to go too far off the tracks.

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Making Them Pay for It: How Creighton Lit up Villanova on Its Home Court

Posted by Joseph Dzuback on January 21st, 2014

Less than 48 hours after suffering their worst loss in the 2013-14 season (an 81-68 pounding at the hands of Providence), Creighton made turnaround fair play by dropping a bomb on #4 Villanova (for this week anyway) with a 28-point victory. The Bluejays had been ranked #20 in the national polls last week, but the disaster at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Saturday gave the sportswriters pause. In a little less than two hours, the game that was supposed to settle the Big East race early instead became the rout that threw the race up for grabs.

Doug McDermott Gives The MVC Something It Hasn't Had In Many Years: A Bona Fide National POY Candidate.

Doug McDermott and his Creighton teammates pulled off a surprise against ‘Nova. (AP)

Late-arriving spectators who checked the Jumbotron at the under-15 timeout could be forgiven if they thought the 24-5 score favoring Creighton was a scoreboard malfunction. They also missed an astounding  shooting exhibition where the Bluejays hit seven of their first eight field goal attempts as 6’7” center in name only, Ethan Wragge, hit five consecutive three-pointers on his way to a 9-of-14 night from beyond the arc. Wragge never took a two-point attempt because he didn’t need to. Overall Creighton converted 21 of its 35 threes for a scorching 60 percent conversion rate. Translated using Dean Oliver’s eFG% formula, that results in a 90 percent two-point conversion rate. “They were outstanding,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright with perhaps the understatement of the year. Regarding NPOY candidate Doug McDermott, who contributed 23 points, five rebounds and three assists: “He is a joy to watch, you don’t like it when he is doing it to you, but he is a joy to watch.” Wright may as well have been referencing the entire Creighton team and their offense on this night.

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ACC Teams Struggling to Adapt to Styles of New Programs

Posted by Christopher Kehoe on January 16th, 2014

Much was made of the three former Big East teams entering the league this season and having to adapt to the ACC’s style of play. This notion was supported by the simple fact of sheer numbers; the returning ACC teams would number 12 teams while the Big East was sending over only three units. What did not get enough preseason attention was how the ACC as a whole would adapt to the very different styles of play of the three incoming teams, all quite successful programs in their own rights. Notre Dame under head coach Mike Brey is known for its selfless team basketball, execution, cutting and the extra pass, while developing a litany of elite low post big men like Luke Harangody, Jack Cooley, and now Garrick Sherman. While the Irish lost its best player in Jerian Grant for the year, their style of play was on display and ultimately decided the outcome in a statement win against Duke.

Pitt's James Robinson is a large reason they are 16-1 (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Pitt’s James Robinson is a large reason the Panthers are 16-1 (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone has helped in establishing itself as one of the best teams in the nation and has put the Orange among a group of three unbeaten teams remaining. Their defense has flummoxed ACC opponents to the tune of allowing only 50.0 PPG to ACC foes through their first four games. They clearly have taken charge and dominated the tempo in their outings, most recently holding UNC a full 30 points below its season average of 75.6 PPG. While it remains early in the ACC race, so far it seems obvious that both Syracuse and Pittsburgh have been forcing their own tempo and style of play on their opponents and not vice versa. Jamie Dixon’s Panthers are known for their toughness and gritty play, both of which were evident in their recent 12-point road victory over N.C. State. Famed ESPN analyst Dick Vitale confirmed this theory and perception when he noted: “There are certain programs that get certain labels that help them big-time psychologically… the mindset is where you’re at a negative before you ever start playing, and I think Pittsburgh has that, that label of being tough.”

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