It’s been over a week since Wake Forest’s second-half collapse in Chapel Hill, where the Deacs led at halftime before falling to the Tar Heels by 21. Since then, not much has changed. The ACC is still a battle for the final three spots in the top four, with several bubble-type teams throwing punches while taking their own.
Wake Forest is a bubble team in its own right — the Deacs are currently in 31% of brackets released since Jan. 21, per Bracket Matrix. Wake Forest also holds sole possession of fifth place in the ACC, with BartTorvik projecting it ends the season in third, with a 60% chance of reaching the top four.
That’s all fine and good. I very much envision Wake Forest reaching that double-bye in the ACC Tournament. But, that doesn’t happen without a troubling trend coming to an end — losses on the road. For the Deacs to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2017, they’re going to have to pick up wins away from the Joel that move the needle.
That starts with Pitt Wednesday night.
Teams: Wake Forest (13-6, 5-3 ACC), Pitt (12-8, 3-6 ACC)
Date: Wednesday Jan. 31
Location: Petersen Events Center; Pittsburgh, PA
In his four games against the Panthers as head coach of Wake Forest, Steve Forbes is 2-2, with both losses coming away from home. Last season’s defeat to Pitt occurred during the back-breaking four-game losing streak in the final two weeks of January.
After trailing by 10 at half, Wake Forest raced back in the second, taking a one-point lead with 4:34 to go. From that point forward, the Deacs only scored five points. Pitt would go on to make the NCAA Tournament and win two games — First Four and first round — while Wake Forest’s season ended in Greensboro at the ACC Tournament.
Pitt trails Wake Forest in each of the three major ranking metrics — 38 to 71 in KenPom, 46 to 67 in NET and 45 to 75 in Torvik.
Efficiency-wise, Pitt is a pretty balanced team, rated No. 80 in offense and 56 in defense per KP. Offensively, the Panthers are an average shooting team, ranking near the middle on both two-point shots and threes (though 37% of their points come from behind the arc.) They are poor from the free-throw line, but create extra possessions through offensive rebounds and seldom turning the ball over.
On the other end, opponents tend to struggle shooting against Pitt, with a 47.6 effective field-goal percentage. The Panthers, though, don’t cause turnovers and give up a significant amount of offensive boards.
Pitt is below average in bench minutes, well below the mean in two-foul participation and just above it in D-1 experience.
Best Win: 80-76 victory over Duke (Jan. 20, Away)
Troubling Loss: 69-58 defeat to Syracuse (Jan. 16, Home)
Ever since the beginning of conference play, Pitt has featured a strong eight-man rotation — sometimes nine — with each part averaging over 18 minutes per game. On the top end, two players are playing over 34 minutes per contest. The majority of the scoring tends to come from three sources, but none of the Panthers are high-percentage shooters.
G Jaland Lowe
Lowe, a freshman out of Texas, has played in all 20 games for the Panthers this season, but didn’t crack the starting lineup until the beginning of January. Since then, despite averaging 20.5 minutes overall this season, he’s played 31.5 per game.
Though Lowe’s field-goal percentage is a few ticks under 40, he’s picked up his game since becoming a starter. In the past four contests, he’s hit double-digits, including a 20-point effort against Syracuse and 17 in the win at Duke.
While most of his volume comes from two-point range, he has shown he can hit the three too, converting on 50 attempts at a 32% clip.
Another stat that will make coaches happy — he’s sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 2:1.
G Carlton Carrington
Carrington is another freshman for head coach Jeff Capel, hailing from St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. Carrington leads the team in minutes per game during conference play with 35, while having started every contest this season.
The freshman is a high-volume shooter, averaging over 10 attempts per game, while hitting his field goals at a 39% rate. In conference play, that FG% has dipped by five. Carrington profiles as a serious target from the three-point line, with over half of his shots coming from deep.
To boot, he’s a strong ball distributor, leading the team in assists by a wide margin.
F Zack Austin
The 6’7” forward is playing 24 minutes per game, but that stat sits at 28 in ACC play. He’s a fine shooter at 43.5%; nearly half of his attempts are three-pointers, which he makes at a 27% clip.
In some ways, I see him as a three-and-D player with the three-point attempts, combined with a team-high 29 blocks. Additionally, Austin pulls down 4.4 boards per game.
A side note: Austin is a Winston-Salem native, having attended Moravian Prep before transferring to Pitt from High Point University.
F Blake Hinson
Hinson is the star of this year’s Panthers squad, averaging 18 points in 32 minutes for Capel. His three-point percentage is nearly as good as his overall field-goal rate, with him hitting 68 of his 166 attempts from behind the arc.
Against Duke, Hinson was unconscious from three. And, a lot of his makes were generated by space creation. In short, the shots weren’t just wide open.
A lot of the offense creation is coming from him — his assist numbers are quite low. Additionally, he’s a liability from the free-throw line, making just 65.5% of his shots.
C Federiko Federiko
Easily one of the best names in college basketball, Fede Federiko gives Capel roughly 20 minutes per game. Though a low-volume shooter, he’s hitting over 65% of his attempts, good for five points a contest. Federiko’s presence is most felt in the paint where, despite averaging just 4.8 rebounds, over 50% are offensive.
The junior has started the last three ACC games for Pitt (13 of 20 total this season). It’ll likely come down to him and Guillermo Diaz-Graham for the spot at the five against the Deacs.
The Depth Pieces
G Ishmael Leggett
After starting 14 games, Leggett has supported Pitt off the bench in the past five. Despite not being a member of the starting five, he’s still averaging 26.6 minutes in conference play. Leggett is a high-volume shooter that scores about 12 points per game.
F Guillermo Diaz Graham
Diaz Graham has started seven of 20 games for the Panthers this season, but appears to mostly be coming off the bench now. He averages 19 minutes, 7.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest, while shooting over 50% from the field. Nearly half of his shots are from behind the arc.
Essex’s Take, Keys to the Game
Pitt is a team that befuddles me. They have a solid starting five, are led by a player that can catapult them to a win against just about anyone (when he’s on), but also are horrendous at home this year. The Panthers haven’t won a single conference game in their home state this season, but are 3-2 on the road. Why that is, I have no clue.
But, this creates a nice little scenario for Wake Forest. Take a team that has struggled on the road — and really desires this win — and give them a squad that seemingly can’t win on home court.
Regardless, Wake has seen just how quickly a game can flip on its head in enemy territory, just look at NC State and UNC. It’ll take a full 40 minutes of commitment to the game plan, the offensive scheme and mistake reduction.
If Wake Forest wants to make the NCAA Tournament, it’s time to “walk the walk.” That means winning a game like this. Here’s how I see them coming home with a win.
Do not let Blake Hinson get going, do not give him space
Hinson is hitting 41% of his shots from three-point range, which is impressive to say the least. But, for some opponents, it can feel like that percentage skyrockets. If you let him get hot, he will.
When Pitt blew out West Virginia, Hinson went 9-15 from deep. He was a perfect 7-7 in the Panthers’ recent upset of Duke in Cameron. From the film, some of those makes were insane, there is nothing you can do about them. Others were byproducts of not covering him hard enough at the line. That was clearly evident when he put up 14 three-point attempts last year against Wake Forest and made eight — he had space to do so.
In contrast, when Hinson doesn’t get hot, when he doesn’t have the room to work, his production falls. In losses to Syracuse and North Carolina, Hinson’s opponents held him to 3-12 and 4-16 respectively.
Move the rock
Again, a consistent thread with Wake Forest — when the ball movement dies, so usually does the Deacons’ offense. Keeping the passing hot and not playing hero ball has the opportunity to open up shots (more on that later) and keep Pitt on their toes.
Even if it doesn’t work from the get-go, moving the ball consistently, especially in the second half, seems like a way to maintain structure and momentum on offense down the stretch.
Get those three-point hands ready
The stats here might make this point a little hazy at first, but bear with me. Yes, Pitt’s opponents’ three-point shooting percentage is low, but that is not a reflection of the number of opportunities. In reality, it’s about not capitalizing on them.
Of Miami’s 63 shot attempts in Pitt’s most recent loss, 31 were from three. That’s an incredibly large number, but the Hurricanes made just 10. Duke took 28 threes a week prior. In Pitt’s loss to Syracuse, the Orange put up 17 attempts. North Carolina took 17 too.
The chances for the three-pointers are going to be there for Wake Forest, especially because Pitt can sometimes drop back a touch on defense. If the Deacs can take those deep balls and hit them like they did against Louisville, odds are the game is going to go their way.
So, Parker Friedrichsen and Damari Monsanto…start your engines.
Last season’s loss at Pitt was a heartbreaker; it felt like the Deacs had a win in their sights, until it slipped away. If Wake lets it slip again, as they have on the road a few times this year, this loss will feel particularly gut-wrenching.
In the context of this season and the NCAA Tournament, we are not yet at “must win” territory, but it’s about as close as you can come without being there. This is a victory Wake Forest should be desperate for.
I think they get it for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think Blake Hinson is going to be able to go absolutely nuclear from three, which seems to be what it takes for Pitt to win. He might make a few, but if Wake can keep it from being back-breaking, that would be massive.
Secondly, Wake Forest is a very good three-point shooting team. As I said previously, the opportunities will be there, and the Deacs have guys who can capitalize. You just need to get the ball in the net.
I’m not going to pretend like I’m extremely confident about this game. In fact, Wake Forest needing a road win is concerning considering their performance away from home in the ACC. But Pitt feels like the right game at the right time for the Deacons.
Wake Forest is the better team, but it sure needs to play like it to earn a big road ACC victory.
Wake Forest wins 72-67