Pittsburgh’s 72-60 win over No. 10 Georgetown was one of three upsets involving top-15 teams playing on the road on Saturday. Earlier in the day, No. 5 Kansas lost at Iowa State whiel later on No. 13 San Diego State lost at Colorado State, right around the same time Pittsburgh was wrapping up its big win.
In Ames and Fort Collins, the students immediately responded to their team’s enormous wins by storming the court, something to be expected with such a win. In Pittsburgh, this did not take place.
Like Iowa State and Colorado State, Pittsburgh was an unranked team beating a highly-ranked team. In fact, compared to the other two teams, Pittsburgh is having a considerably worse season to this point. Iowa State is now 15-6 overall and Colorado State 14-6 after their wins, while Pittsburgh improved to just 13-9—and just 2-7 in Big East play—with the win.
So why wouldn’t Pitt fans embrace the rather rare conference victory this season and rush onto the court at “The Zoo?” It’s pretty simple: They don’t believe their team is actually an underdog. That has certainly been true the past several years. Even with this year’s struggles, however, their belief may not be entirely unfounded.
Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has been the most successful team in the Big East. The Panthers have been to the NCAA Tournament 10 straight years, the only Big East team to do so. They have won at least 25 games each of those 10 years, with five Sweet 16 appearances in that span. With that kind of success, Pittsburgh has rarely assumed the role of underdog, home or away, in recent years.
This year has been a tough departure from the norm for Pittsburgh, at least to this point. The Panthers lost to Wagner at home—a rare second home loss to a non-conference team—before losing their first seven Big East games. Within that losing streak were losses to perennial bottom-dweller DePaul and a 23-point home loss to Rutgers in which Pitt scored just 39 points.
It was clearly one of the uglier stretches of basketball for any Big East team in recent memory, but especially for a high-caliber program of the likes of Pittsburgh. However, the team’s struggles can be put into proper perspective considering the loss of a key player: point guard Tray Woodall.
Woodall was first sidelined on Dec. 3 against Tennessee with groin and abdominal injuries. He missed the next five games before returning to action Dec. 27 against Notre Dame. However, he played just 18 minutes against the Irish and was virtually a non-factor, missing all five of his shots and having just two assists. Woodall then missed the next five games before coming back last week against Louisville.
During the 12 games Woodall missed or did not contribute much, Pittsburgh went just 5-7, including the losses to Wagner, DePaul and Rutgers. After losing to Louisville in Woodall’s return to the lineup, Pitt has now won back-to-back games. Woodall scored 17 to go with nine assists in the win over Providence and came back with 10 assists on Saturday against Georgetown.
With Woodall seemingly back to his early-season form, where he averaged about 13 points and over eight assists per game, Pittsburgh showed on Saturday why they will compete with anyone they face in the Big East going forward. Any losing streaks Pitt has the rest of the year should be very short lived.
With the excellent home-court advantage they’ve enjoyed at the Petersen Events Center, Pitt could win all their remaining home games, including one against West Virginia in a few weeks. While late-season games at Louisville and Connecticut won’t be easy, those are also games that Pittsburgh should have a chance to win, given the inconsistencies of those two teams.
Will Pittsburgh go on an incredible late-season run and make the NCAA Tournament? It will be tough, but not impossible. The bottom line for now is: Pittsburgh will begin to resemble more of the Pitt teams of recent years, not the Pitt teams of recent weeks.