Pittsburgh Basketball: 3 keys to beating Mississippi State in NCAA Tournament

After losing to Duke in the ACC Tournament by nearly 30 points, Pittsburgh Basketball was in serious trouble of missing out on the Big Dance. But they managed to sneak in as one of the Last 4 teams on Selection Sunday. They’ll be facing another bubble team in Mississippi State, a team with a first-year head coach in Chris Jans.

The Bulldogs went 21-10 on the season and 8-10 in SEC play. Like the Panthers, they’re coming off a blowout loss during Championship week, losing 72-49 to Alabama. This is an interesting matchup of opposite styles, one that Pittsburgh Basketball didn’t deal with much in league play.

Here are some keys for the Panthers to beat Mississippi State and advance in the NCAA Tournament.

1. Defend Tolu Smith

The Bulldogs have just one player in double figures on the season but he’s a good one in Tolu Smith, a 5th-year senior forward. The 6’10 big man leads the team with 15.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg and was an All-SEC performer. Smith has had nine games of at least 20 points this season, including 28 points and 11 rebounds against Florida in the SEC Tournament.

He’s a quality big man but solely operates in the post, which is good for Federiko Federiko. Pittsburgh’s starting center has become a good interior defender this season but struggled against bigs that can spread the floor. That won’t be the case against Smith but Federiko has to avoid foul trouble and Mississippi State will throw the ball inside as much as possible. If they can limit Smith’s production, that’ll be a good sign for the Panthers.

*Federiko has been ruled as “questionable” for the game due to a leg injury. If he can’t go or is severely limited, that’s a big problem for Pittsburgh.

2. Need plenty of Nike Sibande

Mississippi State’s strength is on the defensive end. They rank 10th nationally in both points allowed (61.0 ppg) and field opposing field goal percentage (39%). They have great athletes all over and will want to much up this game to have it in the 60s. Pittsburgh’s offense is in the mid-70s on the season and when they get hot from deep can really score. But the Bulldogs are good at preventing a ton of 3s and the concern is that the Panthers will be forced to go iso a lot in this game.

This is a situation where Pitt will have to ready the room early. Greg Elliott leads the team with 42% shooting from three-point range but has scored two points of fewer in 3 of the last 4 games. Meanwhile, Nike Sibande, the ACC 6th Man of the Year, has had 16+ in 3 of the last 4. He also can create his own shot and has the athlectism to compete with the Bulldogs.

The three-point shooting of Elliott will be need but if Mississippi State runs the Panthers off the floor, they’ll have to adjust and have as much as Sibande as possible.

3. Avoid foul trouble due to Bulldog penetration

Another reason why Sibande will be important is that he’s the best on-ball defender on the team. And Mississippi State is a team that wants to operate inside the arc. They rank dead last in the country in three-point shooting at 27%, making just five a game. That’s welcomed news for a Pitt sqaud that recently got torched from deep by Virginia Tech, Miami, and Notre Dame.

The concern is that the Bulldogs are going to pressure the Panthers all the time, especially Federiko. This is a team that doesn’t have a ton of depth or size so foul trouble could really limit them. They sometimes take “bad” or “silly” fouls so that’s something the starters need to be smart in that area.

This game is very winnable for Pittsburgh Basketball and the Bulldogs aren’t going to run them off the floor. A date with Iowa State in on the line on Friday and a chance to extend the season. Can the Panthers win one more game?