Night Line: Could Revitalized Pittsburgh Possibly Make the NCAA Tournament?Posted by EJacoby on January 31st, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC correspondent and regular contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
It’s no secret that Pittsburgh has been a massive disappointment this season, beginning Big East play with a surreal 0-7 record during an overall eight-game losing streak. By failing to meet expectations or excel on the defensive end of the floor, this year’s Panthers are entirely unlike what we usually expect from Jamie Dixon’s teams. But after a 72-66 road win at West Virginia on Monday night, Pitt has now won three straight games and looks like an entirely different team with their starting point guard back from an extended abdominal injury. Pitt is averaging about 17 more points per game in conference games with Tray Woodall than without him, and the Panthers are finally starting to look like the team that was picked to finish fourth in the conference during the preseason. At 14-9 overall and 3-7 in Big East play, Pittsburgh has an incredibly steep hill to climb, but the pieces are in place to make a run for NCAA Tournament consideration.
Pitt is used to qualifying for postseason play; they’ve made the Big Dance in 10 consecutive seasons, the longest current streak in the Big East. The Panthers’ 80.1% winning percentage since 2001 is the fourth best in Division I over that span, trailing only Duke, Memphis, and Gonzaga. Dixon has been the head coach for the past nine years, and the Panthers have simply been superbly consistent under his watch. So the fact that Pitt sits at 12th place in the conference right now is a complete shock that nobody saw coming. The eight-game losing streak that they suffered, which began with a home loss to Wagner on December 23 and ended also at home against Louisville on January 21, was twice as long as any during the Dixon era. Losing starting big man Khem Birch to a transfer request and Woodall to injury put the team into a massive tailspin, and they’re just now recovering from it all.
Can these Panthers put their 0-7 conference start behind them and start playing like a Top 25-team for the rest of the season? Monday night was proof that they just might be able to. Woodall scored 24 points, one short of a career high, on 8-12 shooting against the Mountaineers, and his talented backcourt mate Ashton Gibbs chipped in 15 points including 7-9 from the free throw line. Those two upperclassmen guards form as strong a backcourt as any in the conference, and they’re finally healthy and starting to play like it. Forwards Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna, and Lamar Patterson all average around six rebounds per game, and each is a strong forward that can contribute on both ends. Robinson is at 12.4 points per game on the season and has emerged as the potential third option offensively that all good teams need. When you watch this team play now, they definitely look the part of a competitive Tournament team.
Even though Pittsburgh is a surging Big East team, they have little margin for error going forward, which is always a difficult situation to perform under. The Panthers’ remaining schedule doesn’t look overwhelmingly difficult, either, but no game in the Big East is ever guaranteed. They still have games at Louisville, South Florida, Seton Hall, and Connecticut, and they get USF, WVU, Villanova, and St. John’s at home. Going 6-2 the rest of the way would put Pitt at 9-9 in conference and 20-11 overall, which just might be good enough to make the field of 68. But it’s going to take some kind of performance to get back on the bubble against conference foes that too are fighting for their postseason lives. This Pitt team is still not playing with the same kind of defensive intensity we’re used to seeing from them, and they need to shore things up in a hurry to give themselves a chance to reach top form and make this late-season run.
There are never such things as moral victories, but Pittsburgh especially cannot afford a loss even if it comes in a promising effort. On the road at South Florida and Seton Hall next week, the only realistic goal is to walk out of those two arenas with a W to keep their postseason dreams alive. Whether these Panthers will regain their defensive efficiency and physical swagger remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the overall talent is there in a mediocre Big East to keep compiling wins. It’s time for Gibbs to play like the player who was voted Big East Preseason Player of the Year, Woodall to keep up his 7.0 APG average, Robinson to remain a scoring option in the post, and the younger players to step up with contributions when needed. Expect Dixon to get his team to play with the sense of urgency that it needs going forward. Even if Pittsburgh doesn’t end up with a Tournament-worthy resume by season’s end, they’re most certainly going to be a tough matchup for any team that sees them on their schedule the rest of the year.