When Pitt hits the floor for Wednesday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., it will mark the first time since Jan. 16, 2016, that the Panthers play with a Top 25 ranking attached to their name.
Pitt (21-8, 14-4) sneaked into the Associated Press poll Monday at No. 25 — the result of winning eight of its past nine games and claiming a half-game lead over Miami in the race for the ACC regular-season title.
“No reaction, really,” Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel said when asked about climbing into first place. “I’m happy that we won (Saturday over Syracuse on Senior Day). I’ll enjoy it. But just starting to get prepared for the next one.”
The Panthers can clinch their first conference crown since the 2011 Big East if they can sweep a pair of road games. After facing the Fighting Irish (10-19, 2-16) Wednesday, they’ll face a No. 16 Miami (23-6, 14-5) squad Saturday that will have had a full week to prepare.
A Pitt win on Wednesday would clinch at least a share of the ACC regular season championship and a double-bye in the ACC tournament.
Of Pittsburgh’s five starters, only No. 2 scorer Jamarius Burton (15.5 points, 4.9 rebounds per game) was part of last year’s team that finished with virtually a reversed record (11-21, 6-14).
Fifth-year forward Blake Hinson (15.8 points per game) sat out the last two years at Iowa State. Fifth-year shooting guard Greg Elliott (11.2 ppg) was a four-year backup at Marquette. Fifth-year point guard Nelly Cummings (11.0 points, 5.0 assists per game) started his career at Bowling Green and spent the past three years at Colgate. Sophomore big man Federiko Federiko, a Finland native, was playing junior college ball in Oklahoma.
While the Panthers are enjoying their finest moments in at least seven years, the Fighting Irish are enduring one of the worst seasons in the program’s 119-season history.
Notre Dame (10-19, 2-16) sits at 19 losses entering Wednesday’s game — including the past seven games in a row by a combined 43 points. The school record for losses is 21, set in 1965-66 when the irish finished 5-21.
Notre Dame hopes to regain the services of guard tandem JJ Starling (left knee soreness) and Marcus Hammond (toe) for Wednesday. They sat out Saturday’s 66-58 loss at Wake Forest, which left head coach Mike Brey essentially with a six-man rotation.
While the Irish will focus Wednesday’s spotlight on their six graduate students — Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin, Cormac Ryan, Trey Wertz, Hammond and Robby Carmody — lots of eyes will be trained on powerful freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin.
The Top 100 recruit racked up a career-highs 19 points at Wake Forest while also grabbing eight rebounds. Since joining the starting lineup Feb. 8, Lubin has averaged 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 67.5 percent from the floor.
“Lot to work with there. He is a great young prospect,” said Brey, who will step down at the end of this season. “I would hope he would stay here with the new coach — and I think there’s a great chance of that. He’ll start next year and he can be on to a great career and he probably won’t be a four-year guy. He’s that gifted.”
–Field Level Media