Heading into the 2014 NCAA tournament, a pervading topic of conversation centered on whether a No. 8 or No. 9 seed could topple a No. 1 in the round of 32. Most conceded Kentucky and Oklahoma State had a chance.
Well, if Thursday is any indication, throw Pittsburgh into that ring as well.
In a dominant performance from start to finish, the No. 9 Panthers defeated No. 8 Colorado, 77-48, to advance to their first tournament weekend since 2011.
Pittsburgh, which had quietly become a heavy favorite before tipoff, will play the winner of top overall seed Florida and Albany on Saturday. Jamie Dixon's club has not advanced to the Sweet 16 since its 2009 Elite Eight run and has had notable struggles despite some high seeds. As ESPN's Jeff Goodman noted, this was actually the school's first victory against a higher seed in more than three decades:
None of those foibles showed up on Thursday. Opening the game on a 13-0 run, Pittsburgh set a dominant tone from the opening tip and never pulled off the throttle. Talib Zanna, who led the way with 18 points, scored the last six on that run and overwhelmed the Buffaloes with moves in the paint.
"I was just trying to be patient. I know if I'm open, the ball is going to come to me," Zanna told reporters after the game. "I was wide open just trying to run the floor, and I was just having wide-open layups."
Zanna, whose intraconference struggles coincided with Pitt's descent out of the Top 25, has recaptured his form of late. He has scored in double figures in seven straight games and seems to be playing with the necessary urgency of a senior in his last few collegiate contests. Dan Wolken of USA Today pointed out Florida big man Patric Young is going to have a difficult time defending Zanna if Pitt keeps feeding him the ball:
As a team, the Panthers shot 50.8 percent overall, a strong improvement from their 79th-ranking field-goal percentage during the regular season. Leading scorer Lamar Patterson struggled for a 4-of-11 performance en route to 10 points, but his slack was picked up by solid performances across the board.
Cameron Wright scored 11 points and played lockdown perimeter defense, doing most of his damage in the first half. Chris Jones added eight more, with most of those coming as the Panthers integrated more bench players into the action.
Pittsburgh's offensive resurgence was a terrible sign for Colorado, which came in as one of the worst offensive teams in the entire tournament. Ken Pomeroy's offensive efficiency rating ranked the Buffaloes No. 150 offensively, second worst among at-large teams and 10th worst overall.
Nearly every one of their worst habits showed up on the big stage.
An inside-first offense shot 35.7 percent overall, including 4-of-16 from beyond the arc. The struggles from three have limited Colorado's ability to come back from behind throughout the regular season, a problem that persisted against the Panthers. No Buffaloes player hit more than one shot from beyond the arc.
More concerning was the turnover issues, which turned an uphill battle into an impossible one. Colorado finished the regular season with nearly 20 percent of its possessions ending in a turnover, per Pomeroy. The Panthers forced 17 such mistakes on Thursday, leading to easy transition buckets and further depressing an already struggling offense.
To contrast, Pitt only turned the ball over three times.
At a certain point, the Buffaloes' play became so sloppy that Matt L. Stephens of The Coloradoan wondered how SMU, the last team left on the bubble, was reacting:
Embodying Colorado's struggles was guard Askia Booker, who had taken on more of a leadership role in wake of Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending injury. Booker scored fewer than 10 points for just the third time in his past 10 games. Struggling to get a shot off against a swarming Panthers defense, Booker shot 2-of-9 from the field and had four turnovers.
Josh Scott was limited, but acquitted himself much better with 14 points and six rebounds. Forward Xavier Johnson (11 points) was the Buffaloes' only other double-digit scorer. They were outscored by Pittsburgh, 26-7, in bench points.
The result was likely the most dominant win for close-seeded opponents you'll see during the first two days of the tournament. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out it's also the biggest victory in Pittsburgh tournament history:
Given that the Panthers have been a No. 1 seed before, that's either a slightly embarrassing sign of their past struggles or a promising outlook for the future.
Assuming Florida takes care of business, Panthers faithful better hope it's the latter. The top-seeded Gators have won 26 straight heading into their round of 64 matchup and are Vegas Insider's odds-on favorite to cut down the nets. With athletes all over the floor and a possession-limiting attack, Billy Donovan's squad rarely blows solid teams out.
"We're a better team now than we were earlier in the year," Dixon told reporters of his team. "That's what you hope to be."
But no matter how many close games the Gators play or how good Pitt looked against Colorado, it's going to be hard to shake the faith. Michael Rogner of Tomahawk Nation was one of many to caution folks on overrating a win over Colorado:
The Buffaloes' loss of Dinwiddie, their best player and top overall weapon, probably opened the doors for Pitt to look better than it actually is. Colorado's inability to score haunted it at times during the Pac-12 schedule, and one could argue the team was over-seeded to begin with.
Still, a dominant win against a supposedly superior team should open some eyes that this Panthers team isn't to be taken lightly.
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