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Louisville-Pitt preview: Cards kick off ACC play on the road

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Chris Mack’s team looks to get back on track after a humbling defeat over the weekend in Madison.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville Cardinals (4-1, 0-0) At Pittsburgh Panthers (5-1, 1-0)

Game Time: 7 p.m.

Location: Petersen Events Center: Pittsburgh

Television: Regional Sports Networks (Fox Sports South in Louisville)

Announcers: Bob Rathbun (play-by-play) and Brian Oliver (analyst)

Favorite: Louisville by 3

Series: Louisville leads, 19-6

Last Meeting: Louisville won 73-68 in overtime on Jan. 14, 2020 in Pittsburgh

Series History:

Possible Starting Lineups:

Statistics:

Pitt’s Season to Date:

Relevant Videos:

About Pittsburgh:

Picked before the season to finish 13th in the 15-team ACC, Jeff Capel’s Pitt Panthers are off to something of a surprisingly positive start in 2020-21. Of course, the same could have been said in each of the last two Decembers for Capel and the Panthers, and both those seasons wound up being defined by collapses during the heart of conference play.

The season certainly did not begin on a high-note, as Pitt led for just 33 seconds in an embarrassing 80-70 opening night loss to St. Francis (PA). Since then, though, the Panthers have not lost. Their current five-game winning streak includes a road win over a 4-1 Northwestern team that has since beaten Michigan State by 14, and a dominant 70-55 win over a shorthanded Miami squad to kick off conference play.

While Xavier Johnson (15.2 ppg, 6.0 apg, 4.7 rpg) has been as stellar as ever, the biggest surprise for Pitt this season has been that the junior guard hasn’t been the Panthers’ best player. That honor belongs to sophomore forward Justin Champagnie, who enters Tuesday’s contest averaging 17.8 points and a conference-leading 12.3 rebounds per game. The reigning ACC Player of the Week, Champagnie has scored in double figures in all six of Pitt’s games so far this season, and netted the last four points in the Panthers’ comeback win over Northwestern.

Before foul trouble limited his time on the floor against Miami, Champagnie produced back-to-back games in which he scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 20 rebounds. He’s a versatile scorer with great athleticism, a solid frame, and a knack for getting to the ball before anyone else. He presents a totally different challenge for Sam Williamson and Louisville’s other forwards than Wisconsin’s lineup did, but that challenge won’t be any less extreme.

With Cardinal-killer Trey McGowens now suiting up for Nebraska, the third member of Pitt’s “big three” is junior guard Au’Diese Toney. Though he was a starter last year and a key contributor as a freshman, Toney has taken on a much larger role so far this season than he ever has before. His scoring average (16.2 ppg) is up by 6.7 points per game and is tied for the ninth-best in the ACC. He’s shooting 40.9 percent from three which is easily a career-best, as are his 2.7 assists per game. Having the ball in his hands more has also resulted in a career-high 2.7 turnovers per game, the most of any key contributor outside of the primary facilitator, Johnson.

The three players mentioned here had accounted for just under 70 percent of all the scoring from Pitt’s first five games, but foul trouble limited the minutes of both Champagnie and Johnson against Miami. In their absence, sophomore guard Ithiel Horton — a Delaware transfer in his first season with the Panthers — drilled four three-pointers and scored a team and season-high 18 points. Talented 6’9 freshman forward John Hugley also came off the bench to score nine points in just 13 minutes.

Even with some unlikely contributors stepping up against Miami, depth is an issue for this Pitt team. Capel plays a decent number of guys off his bench, but so far, none of those guys have been able to establish themselves as consistently reliable contributors. As a result, Pitt’s roster is loaded with guys averaging 5-12 minutes and very little outside of that.

Help in that department could be on the way in the form of 6’4 senior guard Nike Sibande, a transfer from Miami of Ohio who was just declared eligible last week. The former MAC Freshman of the Year, Sibande averaged 15.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game for the Redhawks last season. His rust showed in his first action with the Panthers, scoring three points and turning the ball over three times in eight minutes against Miami.

What Pitt does well: Use ball screens and get downhill to the basket, pick and choose their spots to score in transition, prevent straight lines and defend the perimeter, get offensive rebounds, have Justin Champagnie and Xavier Johnson, block shots.

What Pitt does not do well: Shoot from the outside, shoot free-throws, take care of the ball, have depth.

Notable:

—Pitt head coach Jeff Capel will miss Tuesday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. Associate head coach Tim O’Toole will assume head coaching duties in Capel’s absence.

—Louisville has won its conference opening game in 10 of the last 12 seasons and seven of the last eight entering Tuesday’s ACC opener at Pitt. Louisville has won its first conference road game in 10 of the last 13 seasons.

—Louisville has won 15 of its last 16 games against Pitt. The Cards’ 89-86 overtime loss in January, 2019 snapped a 12-game winning streak against the Panthers.

—Pitt is allowing just 61.6 points per game on 37.2 percent (107-of-288) shooting from the field during its current five-game win streak.

—Pitt is the only school in the ACC with three players ranked in the top 15 in scoring. The Panther trio of Au’Diese Toney, Xavier Johnson and Justin Champagnie combines for 49.2 points per game, 65.6 percent of Pitt’s scoring output. Champagnie (17.8 ppg.) is tied for fifth in the ACC in scoring, while Toney (16.2 ppg.) and Johnson (15.2 ppg.) rank tied for ninth and 13th, respectively.

—Pitt point guard Xavier Johnson leads the ACC in assists (6.0 apg.), while also ranking 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.64:1).

—Louisville has a 46-12 record in the month of December over the last eight years.

—Louisville PG Carlik Jones is the only player in the ACC to rank among the top 15 in each of scoring (7th in the ACC, 17.3 ppg), rebounding (13th, 7.0 rpg) and assists (2nd, 5.3 apg).

—Louisville’s 28 ACC road wins are the fourth-most in the conference since the Cards joined in 2014-15.

—Pitt ranks second in the ACC in offensive rebounds (14.3 orpg.) and offensive rebound percentage (.374). Pitt also has a +61 scoring margin in second chance points

—Louisville is 8-2 all-time against Pitt in games played at the Petersen Events Center. The last two of those victories have come in overtime.

—Pitt leading scorer Justin Champagnie (17.8 ppg) also leads the ACC in rebounding at 12.3 rebounds per game.

—Chris Mack is 4-1 as a head coach in games against Pitt.

—Louisville has won 18 of its last 19 games played immediately before Christmas, including the last 11 straight.

—The Panthers have held their past five opponents to 24.6 percent (28-of-114) shooting from beyond the three-point arc. Pitt leads the ACC (T-32nd in the NCAA) in three-point field goal defense (.266) on the season.

—Since 2004, Louisville is 124-0 when leading by more than 10 points at halftime.

—Louisville is 22-0 over the last two seasons when scoring at least 71 points, and just 6-8 when failing to hit that mark. The Cards are 4-0 when hitting the 71-point mark this season.

—Louisville has won 162 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.

—Louisville has won 155 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.

—Louisville is one of just four schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 18 seasons. Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas are the others.

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 71, Pittsburgh 68