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Mike Lopresti | | March 15, 2023

Pitt's First Four win over Mississippi State a hopeful sign in a bumpy ACC season

Pitt vs. Mississippi State - First Four NCAA tournament extended highlights

DAYTON, Ohio — The ACC has been a puzzle awaiting an answer in March. That started with Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. The team picked to finish 14th in the conference clawed and scratched and survived and advanced, and you wonder if that was as good an omen for the ACC as it was for the Panthers.

Twenty-one lead changes. That’s how many Pittsburgh and Mississippi State battled through before the matter was finally settled in the last 10 seconds 60-59. They went for nearly a 26-minute stretch never separated by more than a possession, and the Panthers found a way despite missing their injured 6-11 center and getting owned in rebounding 49-28. They’re off to Greensboro next to play Iowa State.

“We showed toughness, resiliency,” coach Jeff Capel was saying afterward. “We were who we’ve been all year and it wasn’t pretty, but it was beautiful.” It was a terrific game for spectators, same as last year’s two-overtimer in Dayton between Notre Dame and Rutgers. Those who belittle the First Four haven’t been watching the First Four.

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As for this latest edition, maybe it’s the first sign in the bracket that the ACC hasn’t lost a step, as has been suggested. Past tradition raises its eyebrows at such a thought. This is the league whose current members account for 18 of the 83 national championships ever won — 21.7 percent. That includes nine of the past 21.

This is the league that has won 93 tournament games since 2015, 26 more than any other conference. The present ACC membership has a combined 658 all-time NCAA tournament victories, which is 167 more than the second place Big Ten..

So what’s the trouble? Well, let us count the ways this season.

North Carolina went from pre-season No. 1 to off the bid board, a swan dive of historic proportion.

It had been nearly impossible to imagine Louisville ever going 4-28. But not anymore. Or Notre Dame finishing 3-17 in league play. Or Florida State starting 1-9 and losing 23 games.

Jim Boeheim said goodbye as Syracuse missed the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. That happened to the Orange only one other time in the past 40 years.

Pittsburgh finished one game off the lead in the ACC standings and was sent to the First Four. Clemson finished a game off the lead and wasn’t even invited to the tournament. Georgia Tech fired its coach.

And when Selection Sunday came, you had to go 16 names down the seed list to find a lodge member — Virginia as the last No. 4 seed, followed quickly by Duke and Miami as No. 5s.

If that seems a tad unusual, it certainly is. The NCAA began seeding in 1979. In the first 41 years of the process, the ACC had never been without a team in at least a No. 3 slot. Only once without a No 2, and only nine of the 41 years without a No. 1.

The came the pandemic tournament of 2021. Virginia and Florida State were the best seeds the league could muster, at No. 4. Duke didn’t make the field. Five of the seven conference teams in the bracket were one-and-doners, including North Carolina in Roy Williams’ final game.

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Last March was more ACC-ish with North Carolina in the national championship game, having to beat Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell to get there.

And now here’s 2023, with only three ACC schools in the top 40 of the seed list.

A symptom of a sagging conference or a myth soon to be disproven by a strong March? Duke is on a roll. Virginia has been down this road before. There is the recent inspiration of North Carolina — 2022, not ’23 — when the Tar Heels flew non-stop from a No. 8 seed to the national championship game and nearly took down Kansas.

March might have to display the true nature of the 2023 ACC. Pitt gave a pretty good opening argument, with the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 2014. This is Capel’s first winning season in his five years. The Panthers were 11-21 in 2022.

“I’ve missed it,” he said of the NCAA tournament. “You realize you should never take this for granted.”

Shorthanded because of center Federiko Federiko’s knee issue, Capel kept his rotation short. Four Panthers played at least 37 minutes, and one of those was freshman Guillermo Diaz Graham, who had been averaging only 10 minutes a game but was pressed into heavy duty by Federiko’s absence. He had a huge block on one of Mississippi State’s last chances. “It’s a dogfight,” guard Nelly Cummings said. “When you’re in the dogfight, it’s a lot of adrenaline, a lot of emotion, a lot of attention to detail.”

Pitt has been making such noises much of the season, going places where nobody expected a team picked 14th in the ACC to go. “I just think it’s a group of fighters,” Capel said. “When we were down in Miami playing for the ACC (regular season) championship, the night before my staff and I were just sitting around and we started talking about everything. The first four years, everything we’ve been through, and then we started talking about everything that happened at the beginning of this year.

“I’m just unbelievably proud and grateful to be a part of them, to be a part of their journey, to have some sort of impact, to watch how they’ve come together, how they have persevered, to watch the joy they bring every day, to watch how they’ve been able to move on to the next play after a big win or a tough loss. It’s been pretty unbelievable.

“I don’t want it to end.”

It could have Tuesday, but this was just the kind of moment of truth that veteran teams with a purpose usually pass in March. Capel started three graduate students, including Jamarius Burton, whose jumper with 10 seconds left was the 21st and final lead change. “I just told myself I was built for it,” he said of the thought process that led to his winning play. “J.B. Is an old soul,” his coach said. “He should have been like a 1980s basketball player, just a physical mid-range guard that’s tough, that’s competitive, no nonsense, straight to the point. You don’t see him smiling much.”

But Burton was smiling late Tuesday night. So were all the Panther fans who made the four-hour trip west from Pittsburgh. So was the ACC. Hey, maybe things aren’t as wobbly as they sometimes seemed. This was a start, anyway.

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