A volatile 2015-16 season took Wisconsin fans on a wild ride featuring a nearly equal mix of devastating lows and exhilarating highs. The Badgers nearly snuffed out their own chances at going dancing before February began before a wonderful turnaround over their next 10 games saw three of the biggest wins in the country this season against just one blemish.
If any fanbase can empathize with such a roller coaster, it is Pittsburgh's.
The Panthers, however, "pulled a Wisconsin" in reverse. Despite welcoming in five transfers, Pitt played well enough out of the gate to go 14-1 against a cushy schedule, culminating in an important 86-82 win on the road at Notre Dame on Jan. 9. Down the stretch is where Pittsburgh struggled, which is why the Panthers (21-11, 9-9 ACC) will be the No. 10 seed to Wisconsin's No. 7 seed when the two teams meet on Friday evening in a first-round NCAA tournament game in St. Louis.
Yet Wisconsin and Pittsburgh have more in common that just tumultuous seasons and have for some time. Besides being Wisconsin's football coaching incubator for Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh is linked to UW by a historically similar playing style on the court and the two schools' concurrent rise to the top of the college basketball landscape.
Though the Badgers (20-12, 12-6 Big Ten) ascended to greater heights under Bo Ryan recently, Pittsburgh was the class of the monstrous Big East during the first decade of the millennium -- first under Ben Howland and later with current head coach Jamie Dixon at the helm. The Panthers became known for their top-ranked defenses, efficient offenses led by tough guards, and favoring a slow pace.
Podcast: Previewing March Madness, Badgers' draw
How do the first and second-round matchups look for Greg Gard's team, and can Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and the Badgers get past the Panthers?
As far as common opponents between these teams, there are two. The Purdue team that swept the Badgers also handily beat Pittsburgh at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, 72-59. Meanwhile Wisconsin's victim in December, Syracuse, was battered on the boards throughout Pitt's three-game sweep in their rivalry.
Pittsburgh's excellence crashing the offensive glass is one way in which it has differed from Wisconsin through the years. The Badgers have improved mightily this season out of necessity, but the Panthers remain one of the best in the country, collecting 37.4 percent of their own misses.
The long line of professional-grade power forwards at Pittsburgh continues with junior Michael Young. This could set up a thrilling one-on-one matchup in the post with Ethan Happ.
Young has led Pitt's three-headed monster all season, leading the Panthers in scoring and rebounding with averages of 16 points and seven rebounds per game. His numbers across the board are stellar, especially his ability to convert shots in the paint and hurt the opposition at the free throw line.
Running mate Jamel Artis ranks second on the team in both categories, at 14.4 and 4.8 respectively. While you could think of Artis as "Michael Young lite," Wisconsin's own Nigel Hayes would be a more apt comparison. Artis has been an outstanding playmaker for the Panthers this year after moving to a more natural position on the wing.
James Robinson is the final piece of Pitt's Big Three. While not the same powerfully-built point guard that may come to mind when you think of Pittsburgh, Robinson has tons of experience under his belt as a four-year starter under Dixon. Against a Badger team that has excelled at forcing turnovers, one key for Pittsburgh will be to follow Robinson's lead when it comes to caring for the basketball. Robinson has maintained a remarkable 3.45-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio throughout his career and is around 4:1 as senior thus far.
Behind Robinson and Artis, Pittsburgh assists on nearly 63 percent of its baskets, showing high basketball IQ. As a whole, it's one of the more experienced groups Wisconsin will face all year.
Another prominent senior guard for Pittsburgh, Sterling Smith, was immediately eligible after coming over from Coppin State and was Pitt's primary three-point sniper during the non-conference. He is shooting 40.2 percent from long-distance this season. Former Ivy League big man Rafael Maia (from Brown) is one of three graduate transfers on the roster. The 6'9" Brazilian starts in the middle and grabs boards, but averages only 12 minutes per game and is typically a non-factor.
Surprisingly, seven of Pittsburgh's 11 losses this season have been by double-digits, including a 78-61 home loss to North Carolina State -- the 91st-ranked team by KenPom.com at the time -- in which Pitt was out-rebounded, 46-30.
The loss to the Wolfpack began a downward turn in Pitt's season exacerbated by a familiar problem: poor shooting. Pittsburgh can go as cold as any team in the field. In particular, a pattern of inaccurate three-point shooting has repeated throughout most of the Panthers' losses.
4-19, 1-11, 5-17, 2-13, 3-13, 4-18, 3-21.
In a season-ending loss to Georgia Tech that put Pitt squarely on the bubble, the Panthers actually shot 0-for-11 on threes.
Several Pittsburgh losses have come to ACC heavyweights Virginia, Louisville and North Carolina, though the losses to the Tar Heels were more about a less-staunch-than-usual Pitt defense succumbing to a well-oiled offensive machine. Nothing for the Badger faithful to be encouraged by there.
However, Pittsburgh also differs from Wisconsin on the topic of strength of schedule. As mentioned, the Panthers played a dreadful non-conference slate that ranked 332nd according to Pomeroy. Though well-tested by this point, it's safe to say the true Panthers are much more like the team of the last 17 games than the first 15. Their 14-point stomping of Duke at the end of February essentially came out of nowhere to save the Pitt's season.
It should be noted that Dixon's plan for solidifying the pivot hasn't really panned out. Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa have been ineffective and the largest of all the newcomers, junior college transfer Rozelle Nix, was redshirted. For that season, you may see Young playing out of position as a center at times.
However, like Wisconsin, Pittsburgh has a strong junior class that helps to round out the rotation. In addition to Young and Artis, Dixon brings Sheldon Jeter and swingman Chris Jones off the bench he relies upon heavily.
Jeter, now 6'8" and 225 pounds, should ring a bell as a former UW recruiting target whom Bo Ryan tried to add late in Zak Showalter's class. He's been a very effective rebounder and is the most efficient offensive player on the team thanks to his free throw and two-point shooting percentages. Jeter just isn't a threat from behind the arc. Neither is Jones.
On the other hand, 6'7" freshman Cameron Johnson has sparked Pitt to two wins this season with his outside shooting and picked up his first starting nod the other night against North Carolina in Jones' stead. Forward Ryan Luther has showed well off the bench in the last month or two and rounds out the rotation for all intents and purposes.