Shockers, Panthers set for NCAA Tournament tussle

Into the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in the last 12 years, the eighth-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers find themselves matched up against the ninth-seeded Wichita State Shockers in second-round action in the West Region at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday.

The Panthers, who competed in the highly-competitive Big East Conference again this season before the league gets a drastic make-over, finished fourth in the league standings with a mark of 12-6 behind the likes of Louisville, Georgetown and Marquette who all logged a 14-4 record. Unfortunately, even though the program earned a double-bye through to the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference Tournament, Pitt ended up being one-and-done in the event as it bowed to Syracuse a week ago in a 62-59 final.

As for the Shockers, who represent the Missouri Valley Conference, they played much of the season in the shadow of Creighton even though Wichita State was nationally ranked at one point thanks to an impressive 15-1 start to the campaign. The Shockers finished second in the MVC standings at 12-6 and went 26-8 overall, but it was the Bluejays in the conference tournament title game that handed the squad a 68-65 setback after the Shockers defeated both Missouri State and Illinois State in earlier rounds.

No stranger to this postseason event, Wichita State has a record of 8-10 in nine previous appearances, compared to the Panthers who are 23-24 as they make their 24th appearance.

In terms of an all-time series between these two programs, they've split their previous two matchups with the Panthers, who happen to be ranked 20th in the nation this week, winning the most recent clash during the 2009 CBE Classic in Kansas City by a score of 68-55.

The winner of this contest heads to the third round on Saturday where it will contend against the survivor of the Southern/Gonzaga matchup for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.

Under the direction of Gregg Marshall who was named the MVC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, the Shockers had three players average in double figures as they outscored the competition by almost nine points per game in 2012-13. Heading the list was Cleanthony Early with his 13.6 ppg, even through he came off the bench almost as many times as he started games for the program. Early was second on the unit with 5.1 rpg, but there were times when he limited his own production due to foul trouble. Carl Hall (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) was wise enough to know that he played his best basketball when he stayed close to the rim and not out on the perimeter where he attempted a mere two 3- point shots. Putting up 10.4 ppg and also handing out a team-best 135 assists, Malcolm Armstead showed that he can be dangerous at both ends of the floor as he logged a club-high 66 steals in 34 starts.

Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon has had many great moments with the Panthers during his decade-long tenure in the Steel City, and he hopes that his team is setting up for even bigger and better things starting on Thursday. Much of Pittsburgh's current success stems from a tight defense that has allowed foes to post only 55.4 ppg on 39.3 percent shooting from the floor and 31.2 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line. One of the leaders on the squad is senior starter Tray Woodall, who led the group in scoring with 11.8 ppg, hitting for double figures in 11 straight games at one point, accounting for a team-high 166 assists as well en route to the All-Big East Third Team. Lamar Patterson (10.0 ppg) was also a fan of distributing the ball (92 assists), while Talib Zanna (9.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg) did his best work in the paint for a Pitt squad that beat opponents by an average of seven rebounds per contest.