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It has truly been an up and down season for the Pitt Panthers basketball team. Although they started the season with a tougher non-conference schedule, they still breezed through with ease. Their toughest loss was against #16th ranked Purdue.

But once again, their challenges-and their struggles waited for them when they began league play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is arguably the best conference in College Basketball. When they began Conference play, the Panthers started 3-0, with their biggest win coming against nemesis, Notre Dame. But then they face another nemesis, the Louisville Cardinals and after losing to them, they went on a slump that saw them lose 5 of their next 8 games, mostly to ranked opponents (Virginia, Miami, North Carolina) and get stunned by Clemson and North Carolina State.

Pitt did rebound by beating Wake Forest and Syracuse and as a result, are surprisingly still predicted to make the NCAA Tournament, something that they haven’t done in 2 years. espn.com and usatoday.com projects the Panthers as being a 9th seed when Selection Sunday takes place March 13th. Regardless of their struggles, the Panthers are on the verge of another 20-win season (19-7) and are 8-6 and 8th place in the conference.

Pitt’s 66-52 win at Syracuse on Saturday was exactly what they needed, and seems to have given them lightning bolt of encouragement that they’ve needed for some time. They were so charged-up that even HC Jaime Dixon was dancing in the locker room. Dixon has owned Syracuse since he became the Panthers HC in 2003 and he’s 7-2 against the Orange at the Carrier Dome. So this was truly what the doctor ordered.

But the question is, will it inspire them to finish strong in the 4 remaining regular-season games? And the first 2 games are certainly no doozy as they face 2 of the ACC’s best in Louisville and Duke, both at the Petersen Events Center. The rematch against the Cardinals will me Wednesday night at 8pm and the game against the Blue Devils will be Sunday at 2:30, before a national TV audience Pitt hasn’t fared well against either team, especially in ACC play.

The Panthers will then finish the season with 2 rematches against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, teams that the Panthers beat earlier in the season, so it would truly benefit them if they could complete the season sweep against these two teams.

But the games against Louisville and Duke are more critical because the Panthers haven’t had a win vs. a ranked team all season, and that telling stat could still determine whether the Selection Committee gets them in the Big Dance or not. What could benefit the Panthers is the fact that the Cardinals are banned from postseason play this season, but after beating Duke on Saturday, Louisville is still obviously a force to be reckoned with.

If the Panthers want a prayer against Duke and Louisville, they need to be one thing:

Consistent: And that means on offense and defense. When the Panthers on on their game on offense, Forwards Mike Young and Jamel Artis are usually on their game because like the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Panthers strength is their offense. The problem is, Young and Artis haven’t been that consistent lately, with under-achieving performances in recent weeks.

And that especially goes for Young, who truly is the heart and soul of this team. His scoring average (16.3 PPG) is up this season, but it could be closer to 20.0 PPG if he would overcome his absent-minded struggles that often leads to missed scoring opportunities and turnovers. When his head is in the game, he takes the Panthers to another level.

Artis (15.1) is the perfect complement to Young in the scoring dept., and he’s the team’s only true scorer. His 21 points against Syracuse was pretty impressive and he can truly take over a game. And you can just admit that it would be amazing if we could see another 22-point effort from G James Robinson like he did in the 2-OT win vs. Wake Forest. But scoring hasn’t exactly been Robinson’s strong suit and he’s currently 3rd on the team with a 10.2 average.

Forwards Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones have also added 20-point efforts as spot starters and bench players, and graduate-transfer Sterling Smith is the team’s best 3-point threat, but has since cooled off. The Panthers need A games from each of these players if they want to find a dent vs. Duke and Louisville.

The defensive struggles speak for themselves, which is a far cry from the Pitt Panther team of old. Although Young leads the team with 7.0 rebounds/game, the team needs the rest of the starters and bench players to step it up, especially now. It’s no secret that they’ve lacked a big man at center since Steven Adams left in 2013, and although graduate transfers Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa have had bright spots in the paint, they Panthers need more from them in these final 4 games.

If the Panthers can step it up and get at least 3 wins in these final 4 games, plus make an impression in the upcoming ACC Tournament, then they may very well will RSVP for the Tourney. But starting Wednesday, it’ll be time to go to work.

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatoday.com

Follow him @urbanmediaRay on twitter

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