Jamie Dixon guided Pitt basketball to the NCAA tournament in 10 of his first 11 seasons as a head coach. And the one year Pitt failed to qualify for the Big Dance, it won something called the CBI tournament.
Granted, the majority of Pitt’s appearances in the NCAA tournament ended early. There’s been one Elite 8 appearance, accompanied with a heartbreaking loss to Villanova. Take that run away, and it’s mostly losses to teams seeded lower than the Panthers, though it should be noted at least six teams that knocked Pitt out advanced to the Final Four, including Florida last season.
What Pitt lacks in splashy tournament wins, it makes up for in consistency. Pitt’s string of tournament appearances puts it in elite company.
Maybe cranky Panthers fans will appreciate that consistency later this year, assuming Pitt fails to advance to the NCAA tournament.
At this point, two games into the ACC season, Pitt looks anything but a tournament team. At 11-4 overall and 1-1 in conference, Pitt’s best win probably came against Kansas State, which isn’t saying much. It’s next best win might be against Florida Gulf Coast. There was a bad loss to Hawaii, and blowout losses to Indiana, N.C. State and San Diego State. Against better competition, Pitt’s looked overmatched.
Heck, against Boston College Tuesday night, the Panthers looked like a bad basketball team. Yet, thanks to a three-minute flurry at the end of regulation and the play of Josh Newkirk in overtime, the Panthers escaped Chestnut Hill with a one-point victory.
That win triggers two thoughts: 1. Decent teams find ways to win when they play poorly, and, make no mistake, Pitt absolutely stunk for 37 minutes against Boston College; and, 2. Pitt could be in for a long season.
Leaning toward the latter of those two thoughts, but Pitt’s pulled surprises before.
Pitt could falter in conference play much like the Ashton Gibbs-led (and let’s not give Gibbs much credit for being a leader) squad in 2011-12 that won the CBI or continue to improve like the 2009-10 unit that lost in nonconference play to Texas and Indiana in addition to dropping four of five games during a brutal stretch of Big East play. That team ended up with a three seed in the NCAA tournament and ended its season with a tough loss to Xavier.
This Pitt team isn’t good enough to earn a three seed, but it could gradually improve, much like the 2009-10 team.
This Pitt team is undersized. Michael Young is playing out of position. So is Ryan Luther and Sheldon Jeter. The Panthers don’t own a true post presence. There’s no one inside to funnel the defense to when a player gets beaten off the dribble. Shot selection is poor, occasionally pathetic. Cameron Wright is far from last season’s form, the possible lingering effects of his foot injury. Newkirk occasionally plays out of control. Durand Johnson is suspended for the year. Derrick Randle has regressed, and the same could be said for James Robinson. Jamel Artis looks like Pitt’s second best player for a few games, then struggles to stay on the court in others.
It’s a wildly inconsistent group, but that is going to be part of the fun watching Pitt.
There’s nothing that can be taken for granted with these Panthers. For once, penciling them into the NCAA tournament isn’t a given, and this group is going to be challenged at every stop on the schedule. But, the guess here is Pitt, like most Dixon teams, will improve.
Will be be enough to get into the NCAA tournament during a season of transition? It’s going to take winning games like the next three at home and finding a way to beat a team or two it shouldn’t.
I wouldn’t bet against it, but it is tempting.