Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
When Ben Howland took over Pitt basketball in 1999, the only guarantee was that he couldn't do much worse than predecessor Ralph Willard, though late in Howland's second year in Pittsburgh the Panthers were mired in more mediocrity.
Then came wins in six of seven games, including, most importantly, two eyebrow-raisers in a row against No. 19 Notre Dame and No. 17 Syracuse, with the latter coming in overtime at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament.
Did it pave a road to March Madness? No. Tenth-ranked Boston College slaughtered the Panthers in the Big East final, forcing them to settle for an NIT berth that lasted two rounds.
Did it serve notice to fans that there was hope on the horizon for a program that spent most of the previous decade spinning its tires? Yes. Next came a school-record 29-win season, the end of a nine-year NCAA tournament drought, and, as Cosmo Kramer would say, a lot of other stuff.
Right now, the state of Pitt basketball seems closer to the slow upturn of the Howland era in 2000-01 than the present peak of the Dixon era in 2008-09. Since the fall, when Pitt was about to enter a new power conference, surrounded by new, unfamiliar opponents, it's been difficult to get a read on these Panthers. They posted losses that were tough to justify and wins that were tough to celebrate, but they were also unfortunate on some level.
However, as the 2013-14 team approaches the finish line (hopefully not to cross it for a little while), we've seen them play better, and we've seen their fortunes change. The Panthers have won five of their last seven entering the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., to take on Colorado on Thursday afternoon, and they've displayed the kind of spunk Pittsburghers always expect from their teams.
If the Panthers beat the Buffs and show some of that spunk in a presumed round-of-32 matchup against top overall seed Florida, declare victory and start looking forward to next season, regardless of the latter result. Cam Wright has another year to improve, James Robinson has more layers to add to his game, the freshmen have time to grow, especially Josh Newkirk, and Dixon has time to expand his recruiting base as an ACC member.
It may sound trite to longtime Pitt fans, but today in Oakland it's all about tomorrow.
Statistics courtesy of TheACC.com and PittsburghPanthers.com