Wisconsin and Pittsburgh square off in the N.C.A.A. tournament first round Friday in St. Louis

Before No.7 Wisconsin takes on No.10 Pittsburgh in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament Friday, BadgerNation gets the inside scoop on the Panthers from Panther Digest publisher Nate Barnes.

BadgerNation: What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments in Pittsburgh's 2015-16 season?

Nate Barnes: The biggest disappointment of Pitt's season was the way the Panthers finished. They were 9-7 in ACC play with two regular-season games to go against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, teams the Panthers were expected to beat and finish with a solid 11-7 mark in the ACC. But Pitt lost both to finish 9-9 in league play and (as it seemed at the time) needed to beat Syracuse for a third time in the ACC tournament to get into the Big Dance.

The biggest surprise has been the play of Pittsburgh natives Ryan Luther and Cameron Johnson of late. Both were late additions to Pitt's Class of 2014 and didn't really have any expectations placed upon them. But both have provided huge lifts off the bench in certain games, most recently Johnson's 24-point outburst against Syracuse at the ACC tournament. 

BN: Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard says Pitt hasn't changed very much over the last 10 years, as it's a program based on toughness and physicality. How has that worked as an advantage and disadvantage for the team this season?

NB: Pitt is still a tough team and a team that wants to be tough at times. Jamie Dixon wants the team to be physical all the time, but the players sometimes seem more interested in speeding up the game and using their speed and athleticism to work in transition. At times, that's been when Pitt was actually its best this year and is a style of play that may better suit Pitt's roster. It appears Pitt's commitment to defense and rebounding, where the Panthers are able to be physical, follows the team's shooting percentage. 

BN: It appears Michael Young is Pitt's best player, but who are some of the other players who can do damage against Wisconsin?

NB: Jamel Artis is a player who can do damage and he may actually be Pitt's most skilled player, but consistency issues put him behind Young as the team's best overall player. James Robinson is a steadfast point guard, but it's rare for him to have a dominant game. Chris Jones and Sheldon Jeter are players who can really hurt another team if they get it going and stay out of trouble. Ryan Luther and Cameron Johnson have also popped up randomly with big performances this season.

BN: What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Pittsburgh trouble? Where do you think the Panthers have the edge over the Badgers? 

NB: Wisconsin's slower pace could give Pitt trouble. Fellow ACC member Virginia is one of the slowest teams in the nation, as far as pace goes, but the Cavaliers are also among basketball's most efficient teams each season. On a related note, the Panthers have not beaten Virginia in any season since they joined the ACC. 

As far as Pitt goes, the Panthers should have an edge over the Badgers with their outside shooting. Outside of Bronson Koenig, it doesn't appear Wisconsin has another legitimate outside threat while Pitt has a few in Jamel Artis, James Robinson, Chris Jones and reserves Cameron Johnson and Sterling Smith.

BN: Who is the biggest x-factor for Pittsburgh in order to beat Wisconsin Friday?

NB: Pitt's defense and rebounding will be the x-factor for the Panthers. As noted, the Badgers like to play at a more deliberate pace and will likely make it tough for the Panthers to run and gun as much as they may like. Attention to detail on every possession will be required against Wisconsin, and Pitt's focus must be on defending and rebounding well to control Friday's game. 


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