Only two weeks into conference play, it's becoming difficult to imagine another contender emerging to challenge ACC favorite Syracuse.
Duke is slumping badly. North Carolina is winless and erratic. And now Pittsburgh will be without a key player for the rest of the season.
Pittsburgh announced Sunday night that top reserve scorer Durand Johnson will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL and meniscus in his right knee during Saturday's win over Wake Forest. The sophomore forward sustained the injury when he was fouled on a drive to the basket with 5:30 remaining in the game.
The timing of the injury isn't ideal for Pittsburgh since the Panthers have played at a very high level the past few weeks. They're 15-1 and they've opened ACC play with three straight double-digit victories against NC State, Maryland and Wake Forest, though skeptics will point out that Pittsburgh's most notable victim is probably a Stanford team that remains a long shot to make the NCAA tournament.
For the Panthers to notch the marquee victories necessary to validate their torrid start, they will need to replace Johnson's production. The blossoming sixth man averaged 8.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game and provided another threat from behind the arc.
The most likely solution is more playing time for 6-foot-6 freshman Chris Jones and 6-foot-1 freshman Josh Newkirk, both of whom are capable of replicating the outside shooting of Johnson. Jamie Dixon could also give more minutes to 6-foot-7 Jamel Artis if he wants to go with a bigger, stronger lineup more capable of controlling the glass.
Ultimately, the injury to Johnson is hardly a deathblow for Pittsburgh's burgeoning hopes of contending in the ACC.
Nonetheless, it robs the Panthers of a key player and will force one or more freshman to step up in his absence.