lair – Staff picks: Can Pitt keep it rolling tonight against No. 11 Virginia?

The calendar flipped to 2023 over the weekend, and the Pitt Panthers brought a 10-4 record and four-game winning streak into the new year. The first challenge in 2023 is a great one as the 11th ranked Virginia Cavaliers come to the Petersen Events Center tonight for a 9:00 pm tip.

Virginia is under the guidance of 14th year head coach Tony Bennett. Under Bennett, the Virginia basketball program has reached new heights as he led the school to its only national championship back in 2019 and he has had the Cavaliers as a regular near the top of the ACC standings.

The 2022-23 Cavaliers enter this game with a 10-2 record. After back-to-back close losses to Houston and Miami, Virginia has bounced back and won its past two games, including an 18-point win over Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Cavaliers are led by a trio of seniors: Jayden Gardner, Kihei Clark, and Armaan Franklin. Gardner is a 6’6″ forward who leads the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game. Clark is a steady point guard that has been around forever and leads the team with 5.8 assists per contest, while Franklin leads the team with 23 makes from three-point range.

Pitt is coming off of a dramatic come from behind 76-74 win over No. 25 North Carolina on Friday. The Panthers received a stellar performance from Jamarius Burton, who scored a career-high 31 points in leading the Panthers to a win.

Going from playing the up-tempo Tar Heels on Friday to facing the rugged defensive style of Virginia a few days later is one of the biggest contrasts a team can face in less than a week’s time. Pitt will have to gear up to play a possession by possession type of game.

Can Pitt pull off another top 25 win at home? The Panther-Lair.com staff gives their picks.

Stephen Gertz (10-4): I am going to run it back with the Pittsburgh Panthers here. The Virginia Cavaliers are going to defend for 40 minutes and they are going to force Pitt to make the most of their possessions. They invite mid-range jumpers and block shots at the rim. But Virginia does not defend the three-point line as well as one might expect, slightly worse from a percentage standpoint than the D-1 average. Of course the Panthers are going to have a real small margin for error, but so will the Cavaliers given that it will likely be a low possession game. Why I am leaning Pitt is because I think they are the best defensive team that UVa has played since their loss to the Houston Cougars and they are coming off two relatively easy games. Whereas the Panthers have had a tougher slate of late. I am intrigued by a lot of the matchups, but I also just go with my gut right.
Prediction: Pitt 67, Virginia 64

Houston Wilson (10-4): Another big opportunity comes for Pitt tonight as they welcome Virginia to town. This contest is a major opportunity for Pitt to again enhance their resume as Virginia comes in ranked 11 in the country. Virginia is going to want Pitt to make a lot of three’s in order to beat them and if Pitt is on like they have been for certain games this year, the Panthers can certainly pull off the upset. Just like the UNC game, I am expecting this to be a close one throughout but I do worry a little about the Pitt offense against the Virginia defense. I have Virginia winning a close one.
Prediction: Virginia 71, Pitt 68

Matt Steinbrink (8-6): It is never fun to play against a Virginia team under Tony Bennett, but this Pitt team is about as confident as it can be right now. The Cavaliers aren’t quite the vintage defense that wants to play in the 50s now, but they can still defend and make life miserable for you. It is not an explosive team that is going to run away from you either. So regardless, you can expect a game that will likely stay within two or three possessions for 40 minutes. The Virginia perimeter will present a new challenge for Pitt’s guards, as the good looks from three won’t be as available. However, the Panthers showed against North Carolina that they can also win in other ways. I expect a close game that will be physically and mentally draining. Bennett knows the strengths of this Pitt team, but they are versatile and don’t rely too heavily on one area. We will see how Pitt handles Virginia’s defense. They are certainly capable of beating the Cavaliers right now, but I think this defense they will see is something new and will be the difference. If Pitt does win, we can start looking at the schedule and evaluating their chances of making a run.
Prediction: Virginia 68, Pitt 66

Jim Hammett (8-6): Virginia has been a bad matchup for Pitt through the years, with the Cavaliers owning a 19-4 all-time mark in the series. That lopsidedness in part has been because Virginia has been so good under Bennett, and also Pitt’s roster has not been equipped to handle playing this kind of defensive pressure for 40 minutes. I think Pitt has a team capable of withstanding that constant pressure this season, and they have multiple players that can put the ball in the basket. I think Burton and Hinson carry the team to a pivotal home win tonight. The key to playing Virginia is taking and making good shots, because they can limit your possessions with turnovers and also forcing you to go deep into the shot clock. I think Burton has shown this year he is comfortable breaking down defenders to get shots at the rim, and I feel Pitt has enough good outside shooters to kick out threes.
Prediction: Pitt 66, Virginia 62

Chris Peak (10-4): At some point, Pitt is going to lose another game this season. Probably a few of them. Maybe even a couple back-to-back. The question is, when will those losses come? The Panthers have held on in a pair of close ACC games against Syracuse and North Carolina; can they walk that tightrope again tonight when they host No. 11 Virginia? It’s going to be tough, and probably tougher than the last two. Virginia’s three-point defense is near the bottom of the ACC, but there’s more to it than the shooting percentage. While the Cavaliers are allowing opponents to hit 33.% from beyond the arc, they have also allowed the fewest three-point attempts of any team in the conference. Pitt will run that number up, but the Panthers are going to have to shoot better from deep than they did against UNC. Can they score enough to beat the No. 1 defense in the ACC? I really don’t know, and I’m strongly leaning towards picking against the home team. But I’ll go with the momentum and say Pitt keeps it up for at least one more game. I’m banking on Blake Hinson and Greg Elliott leading this one while Jamarius Burton – deservedly – draws extra attention from Virginia’s defense.
Prediction: Pitt 70, Virginia 64

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