After dismantling Florida State on Friday the Florida Gators (3-1) will get their shot at another ACC opponent when they take on the Pittsburgh Panthers (4-0) in the NIT Season Tip-Off taking place in Brooklyn.
Playing in New York has become somewhat of a fixture of Florida’s non-conference schedule and this year the city will host some of Florida’s most important games. As soon as the Gators’ schedule was announced you could circle this game with Pitt as arguably the most pivotal of the non-conference season, and that’s not necessarily due just to the matchup with the Panthers, but what could come next. On the other side of the bracket is Baylor, considered a top-15 team in the country, playing against Oregon State, who barely snuck by Troy and Appalachian State in overtime and double overtime games. If the Gators win on Wednesday against the Panthers they’ll get a marquee win in what would clearly be their most challenging opponent on their non-conference schedule, and if they lose–there will be nothing more than a chance at a debilitating loss against Oregon State.
Of course, the Gators can’t look past the Panthers. They’re coming off a season where they were expected to finish at the bottom of the ACC, and head coach Jeff Capel was firmly on the hot seat. However, they defied expectations and made the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed and made a Sweet Sixteen, allowing them to recruit a higher caliber player for the 2023-24 season.
Currently Pittsburgh is undefeated, though their first real test of the season will come against the Gators. Their wins are against North Carolina A&T, Binghamton, Florida Gulf Coast, and Jacksonville–with Florida Gulf Coast being easily the highest rated KenPom team at 185th. In this somewhat cupcake-like schedule to start the season the Panthers have taken care of business with a 51 point win over Jacksonville, a 48 point win against North Carolina A&T, and a 29 point drubbing of Binghamton, but it’s hard to know what will translate until they see Florida on Wednesday.
A familiar name in Blake Hinson has led the way for Pittsburgh so far. Hinson started his career at Ole Miss and was a big contributor right away, but it was largely due to his defensive prowess. When he entered the portal after two seasons he wanted to go to a place where he could showcase more offensive abilities and chose Pitt, and the decision has worked beautifully. This season he is averaging 20.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and he has already made 13 threes in 4 games. At 6’8” and 230 pounds he’s still as physical as he was as a lockdown defender back in the day at Ole Miss, but now with much more offensive game he has become a tremendous all-around player.
One of the biggest surprises for the Panthers has been the play of freshman guard Carlton Carrington. He came in as the 91st ranked player in the class of 2023, and so far it looks like he is much, much better than that distinction. A 6’5” point guard, he has great size and his ability to handle the ball is mesmorizing. That length also makes him a menace on the defensive end, something that was thought to be his strength coming out of high school. What people weren’t expecting as much was his offensive pop. He’s right behind Blake Hinson at 18.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and perhaps most notably–6.3 assists. Those kinds of high assist numbers usually come from veteran guards, but Carrington is stuffing the stat sheet in just about every area from the jump. There were some questions about his jumper, but he’s hitting a miraculous 52% from three so far this season (14-27) and it’s making him nearly unstoppable. With Zyon Pullin back in the Gators’ lineup we could see a very good matchup of rangy point guards, and Pullin will have to use his veteran savvy to try to slow down the explosive Carrington.
Pittsburgh’s attack has been centered around taking a ton of three points off mid-post possessions from Hinson or slash and kick actions from Carrington. Right now they are making a ton of their threes–37.8% of them–and that’s what has led to so many blowout wins. They’re yet to have a cold shooting performance and the Gators will have to hope one comes on the neutral floor in Brooklyn.
Entering Wednesday’s game the Gators will be number one in the country in offensive rebound rate and it has been the engine behind everything they have done. So far this season they haven’t faced any physical frontcourts, with both Virginia and Florida State sporting relatively slim post players. Pittsburgh will offer bulk with the previously mentioned Blake Hinson, but outside of that they also have slimmer, lankier bigs such as 6’11”, 225 Federiko Federiko, 7’0” Guillermo Diaz Graham, and 6’11” Jorge Diaz Graham. These are the types of frontcourts Florida has had success beating on the glass, though Pittsburgh offers more willing rebounders on the wing than Florida’s previous opponents this season. So far this season Pittsburgh is 5th in the country in defensive rebounding which in theory should mean they should handle Florida’s offensive rebounding, but remember–that number isn’t adjusted for quality of competition, so their games against low and mid-major opponents have propped that number up.
Pittsburgh wants to play fast, as do the Gators–and both teams like to be aggressive on the offensive glass. This could be an uptempo, chaotic game and whoever controls the glass could end up victorious.
Florida and Pittsburgh from the NIT Season Tip-Off is a late one at 9:30 PM ET on November 22nd. It will be televised on ESPN 2 (or ESPN U).