Pitt has been criticized for its non-conference schedule this season, but it has managed to keep a relatively strong RPI number because it won 10 of 11 games and the teams it has beaten haven’t been "RPI-killers."
That’s a kind way of saying Pitt has in “fooled” the RPI by playing games against teams they should beat who don’t have bad RPI numbers. But that isn’t the case today. The Panthers (11-1) close out their non-conference schedule against Maryland-Eastern Shore (3-12), a team they should beat, which has a very low in the RPI. The Hawks are currently No. 304 in the RPI and they have lost eight of their past 10 games (one of their wins was against Central Penn, a USCAA Division II school).
In its defense, Maryland-Eastern Shore has played a lot of “buy” games — it has had 13 road games this season — which many schools from smaller conferences do in order to help their budget. But it also has played Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games and lost both, to North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T.
The Panthers are coming off a 72-61 win against Syracuse in the ACC opener and this will be their final tuneup before getting fully into the conference schedule. And the Panthers likely will need to have a strong ACC season in order secure an NCAA tournament bid because the non-conference schedule isn’t going to help much.
Only two opponents thus far — Purdue and Davidson — are in the top 50 in RPI, and the Panthers went 1-1 in those games. The Hawks will be the fourth team Pitt has played outside the top 200, dropping its non-conference strength of schedule to 102 and overall to 75. Conference play might not boost the Panthers all that much either, as only six ACC teams are in the top 50 in RPI, and they are one of them (No. 25).
The immediate concern, of course, is Maryland Eastern-Shore, which played Saint Joseph’s in a close game Tuesday before falling, 78-68.
One area the Panthers should have an edge is in the frontcourt because the Hawks don’t have any players taller than 6-foot-8 and are being outrebounded by an average of 1.6 rebounds per game. Dominique Elliott, 6-8 senior forward, is the only player averaging more than 5 rebounds per game.
That means the Panthers should have an edge on the glass, an edge they exploited in their victory against the Orange. Pitt outrebounded Syracuse, 43-25, and the grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, turning them into a 22-2 edge in second-chance points.
“I didn’t think our defense was great [against Syracuse] but we got 19 offensive rebounds and that’s all we emphasize,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “If we’re not making shots, we’ve got to defend and rebound. A big part of our game is offensive rebounding. We didn’t shoot it great, but again, we got 19 offensive rebounds.
“Our defense was good down the stretch but we had too many breakdowns. I thought we fouled guys on shots where we had them where we need to be. We rose up, and that was something we talked about and drilled and emphasized and didn’t get it across to our guys.”
After today, Pitt plays host to Georgia Tech (10-3) Wednesday then plays its first road game of the season next Saturday at Notre Dame (9-3).
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.