Panther-Lair – Pitted for tough challenge against Tolu Smith with or without Federico

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Dayton, — Pitt has a tall task tonight as they face Mississippi State in the First Four at the University of Dayton Arena. The Bulldogs are led by first-team -SEC selection Tolu Smith. The 6’11” senior averaged 15.8 points per game and 8.5 rebounds, leading the team in both departments.

Smith has had 12 double-double performances this season, including three in a row in Dayton. Jeff Capel was asked Monday about facing Smith, and whether he’s like any other big man his team has faced this year.

Capel drew many complimentary comparisons to the Bulldogs star player.

Capel said of Smith, “Well, I think he has some similarities with (Armando) Becot in that he’s very physical, an excellent offensive rebounder and an excellent scorer with a high percentage around the basket.” Is.” “He is relentless in his pursuit of the basketball.”

Pitt has been playing some tough games lately in the rebounding department, especially allowing teams to find success on the offensive glass. Smith definitely excels there. He posted 17 points and 11 rebounds, five offensive assists in his last game against Alabama, the SEC champion and No. 1 overall seed in this tournament.

“On his shots, on other guys’ shots, how physically he’s posting, he’s a load out there,” Capel said. “He’s a really outstanding player who had an outstanding year and that’s a big part of his resilience.”

Playing in the first four doesn’t allow teams much preparation or outside knowledge about their opponent, but it seems likely that Smith scored as soon as the announced their draw.

“They attack the offensive glass really well,” Pitt senior guard Jamerius Burton said of the Bulldogs. “He has a physical presence inside. So for us, we’ve been pushing a little bit on that in the last few hours.”

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The could face that relentless effort on the glass without their starting center. Federico Federico injured his knee in the second round of the ACC Tournament against Tech in Greensboro. He tried to play on the knee against Duke, but had limited mobility and only played 12 minutes.

Jeff Capel announces that Federico will have a ‘game time’ decision for tonight in the team’s first NCAA tournament game since 2016.

“He’s still taking care of that knee,” Capel said of Federico. “He hurt it against Tech, tried to play against Duke the next day. We didn’t like his movement, so we held him when he came down. So he’ll make a decision tomorrow at game time.”

Federico was expected to be the team’s backup center heading into the year, but due to an to John Hughley in the preseason, he was forced into a much bigger role and flourished in a very unexpected way. The junior college transfer is averaging 7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. He received three votes for ACC Defensive Player of the Year. The native has been a vital part to this team’s success, and him not being available tonight will create a void in the middle.

Federico was sweating it out at the team shoot on Monday night and didn’t do much physical activity other than a few jumpshots. However, on Thursday he was able to play despite some discomfort, so it remains a possibility that he will be fit tonight.

If he does not play, there is a possibility that Guillermo Diaz Graham will be put in the starting role. The 7’0″ freshman played 28 minutes in the team’s 96-69 loss in the ACC Tournament against Duke. He posted a career-high 14 points and 8 rebounds. Even against some reserves for the Blue Devils, it was an impressive performance for Diaz Graham.

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Guillermo’s twin brother, Jorge, will also see an increase in minutes if Federico is limited against the Bulldogs. Capel believes that both his new players are ready for the challenge.

“We need everyone ready to go, and everyone ready to go,” he explained. I think he has an incredible future. They both have some huge moments for us in the big games. They’ve stepped up and made some big plays, and we hope they’re ready to do that tomorrow.”

Mississippi State presents a unique challenge because of Smith’s play, but also because of their gritty makeup as a team. Like Pitt, the Bulldogs struggled in the tournament, which is common for teams in the first four. Under first-year head coach Chris Jahn, the Bulldogs started 11–0, but lost eight of nine after that. Capel said he showed resolve because of it.

“When you look at their team, they had some incredible non-conference wins,” he explained of his opponent. “But in their conference they went through a period where they struggled, and they showed incredible toughness, togetherness, resilience to continue to fight and stick together and really turn their season around.”

Pitt may have to use their quickness and outside shooting ability to get out of transition, something they were unable to do against Duke in Greensboro.

“For us to run, we have to rebound,” Capel said. “That’s first and foremost. We’ve got to get the basketball, we’ve got to rebound, so we’ve got to be able to match their physicality, we’ve got to keep them out of our paint, and we’ve got to get the basketball once we do that.” When we are able to do this, we want to run. We want to get out.

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Pitt will be looking for its first NCAA tournament win since 2014, when the defeated Colorado in the first round as the No. 9 seed. If Pitt wins tonight, they will be heading back to Greensboro to take on sixth-seeded Iowa State, but the focus on the team is solely on the Bulldogs.

“They’re a really good basketball team,” Capel said of tonight’s challenge. “They’re tough. They’re physical. They’re really good defensively. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”