Pittsburgh Basketball: Highs and Lows of Panthers' 2014 NCAA Tournament
It may be unfair to call the 2014 NCAA tournament yet another exercise in futility by Pitt, considering it was a year approached by many with guarded optimism. Ultimately, though, it's tough to break down a tournament run in terms of "highs" and "lows" when that run only lasted 72 hours.
Still, after fans saw their patience tried during the thick of the ACC schedule, it is a healthy exercise to note the positives the Panthers had to celebrate, big and small, and assess the negatives that must be learned from in the 2014-15 campaign.
It is also worth noting the Panthers have reached the tournament 12 times in the past 13 seasons. Jamie Dixon may not have a ring on his finger yet, but he still has a knack for getting this city talking about his team at the time of the year it matters most.
Here are a few quotable quotes and notable notes from Pitt's latest NCAA tournament appearance:
Clobbering Colorado was obviously the Panthers' biggest high (insert your own cannabis joke here).
You may not think what Pitt did to its laughably in-over-its-head Pac-12 opponent in the second round was a big deal. But in a historical context, it was.
By blowing out the Buffaloes, 77-48, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., in the round of 64, the Panthers posted the most lopsided victory by a No. 9 seed over a No. 8 seed in NCAA tournament history. And when the record was first reported, it came to me as no shock. That game was a pure, straight-up butt-whipping, with little in-depth analysis required.
Sure, the Buffs were playing without top gun Spencer Dinwiddie, who was lost to a January knee injury, but that might have been the most impressive NCAA tournament effort we've seen from a Jamie Dixon-led Panther squad. That includes a year when he had two future NBA players in his starting five and the national championship was a realistic goal.
Talib Zanna led the way with 18 points, Lamar Patterson added 10, and the Panthers dominated off the glass and in the paint from the opening tip to the final whistle. Jamel Artis and Chris Jones shot a combined 7-for-8 off the bench for 15 points in 27 minutes. The seniors enjoyed one last hurrah, while fans enjoyed catching an encouraging glimpse of the team's future.
Put Me In, Coach
If we take a macro view of that lopsided win, perhaps its most emotionally provocative moment came when its conclusion was forgone.
Jamie Dixon was already emptying his bench when he was faced with the luxurious problem of just how much to empty it. His players picked freshman walk-on guard Joshua Ko up off his seat and practically threw him in their coach's face.
Dixon took the hint and complied. The result was the most exuberant team reaction to a meaningless three-point miss in Pitt basketball history.
But there was nothing meaningless about the substitution itself. Pitt didn't just win that day because it scored more points. Pitt "won" because those young men put on display the kind of camaraderie and uncanny unselfishness that have defined Dixon's program in times of excellence.
Ko may be on this team more because of his networking skills than his basketball ones. However, those guys who still show up to practice every day, even if only to be an extra body and dedicate themselves to the team with the same unbridled enthusiasm as a Patterson or a Zanna. Those "glue guys," if you will, help you win championships, too.
Obviously Dixon hasn't yet built a champion in the ACC, but there's a lot to be said for the way the Panthers build chemistry.
Tall Talk, Tall Task
Guard Cameron Wright was asked about the top-ranked Gators the day after his team advanced to the round of 32. His response:
Pitt Basketball (@HailToPittHoops) March 21, 2014
Lamar Patterson tried to outdo Wright with a rhetorical question, as reported by Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"Do you know anything about Pittsburgh basketball?"
Their ultimate result didn't reflect that rhetoric. It's still worth noting that some people are convinced the program has become too self-satisfied. At least as applied to the dozen guys in uniform, those people are flat wrong.
There's nothing enviable about having to play the No. 1 overall seed, or any other opponent widely acknowledged to be much better than you, when your season is at stake. But this opportunity was and will be a healthy one for the Panthers.
Although I did try to alter one's perspective on Pitt's strength of schedule in a previous article, there will still be plenty who aren't impressed. This matchup was for them.
By facing Florida, the Panthers could see much more clearly where they belong on the national canvas, and where they still have to go.
The low point, you ask? Score one for Captain Obvious, I know.
Call it a loser's mentality, but most Pitt fans had accepted the fate of their team entering Saturday. Despite the audacious words of Wright and Patterson, most of them would have been content to declare moral victory and start looking forward to next season had the Panthers simply given top South Region seed Florida a tough game.
But the Gators devoured the Panthers with their defense all day. A generally mediocre showing by Pitt, coupled with a second-half run by Florida, ended the former's season at 26-10 overall with a 61-45 defeat at the Amway Center.
As has become tradition in Pittsburgh, an NCAA tournament exit, particularly within the first week of play, became a launchpad for the vocal minority who wants sweeping change, including Dixon's dismissal, without re-examining their own overly idealistic standards.
Allow me to be the voice of reason:
Not every nefarious thing in sports requires a scapegoat. Sometimes you just aren't the better team.
Winning the NCAA tournament isn't just about having the right talent, it's also about having the right matchups. Initially, Pitt drew a very favorable matchup against Colorado. Then, perhaps inevitably, it drew, on paper, the worst possible matchup it could have when the Gators got past Albany.
Defensively, Pitt put up enough of a fight to hold Florida to 40 percent shooting from the field, trailing the Gators by just five at the half. Offensively, the 2013-14 Panthers have never been without warts, and Florida, with its own raw talent, exposed them late in the game. Plus, the Gators ended with a 38-31 total edge off the glass.
Between a perpetually deliberate halfcourt team (Pitt) and a skilled team that loves to run (Florida), it wasn't surprising to see the scales tipped in Billy Donovan's favor.
As I just got done saying, it is imprudent for Pitt fans to get too bent out of shape over the minutiae of a game that, quite frankly, conventional wisdom said they were supposed to lose.
But if we must dig deeper, let us gather 'round the campfire and wax poetic about all the famous players named "Scottie" who have given the Panthers hell, shall we?
Okay, okay, I see those five-year-old tears welling up in your eyes, so let's just cut to the chase and add Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin to the list. Superior guard play can make a contender out of anybody, and Wilbekin made the Gators look very worthy of that top overall NCAA tournament seed when he caught fire in the second half last Saturday.
Wilbekin led all participants with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, including 3-for-7 beyond the arc. His scoring was too much on a day when the Panthers had no real answer for Florida on the perimeter.
In that phase of the game, the lone positive for Pitt seemed to be freshman Josh Newkirk, who made two of his team's four three-pointers. In any event, Wilbekin's stat line was befitting the Panthers, who often saw their outside game let down this season.
Once again, the key word for Pitt fans is "perspective." There are 345 members of Division I in NCAA men's basketball. In a year of uncertainty, Pitt was able to count itself among the last 32 standing.
Its lone NCAA tournament win was still one more than a superior Duke team earned this year. While the Panthers mourned a forgivable loss to a potential national champion, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse became the first coach ever whose team has been upset by six double-digit NCAA tournament seeds. Meanwhile, both North Carolina and North Carolina State suffered much more brutal ends to their respective runs.
The best-case scenario for Pitt is that the abrupt low of losing to Florida carries with it a cosmic payoff of greater long-term highs than simply beating a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 team by a country mile.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com and PittsburghPanthers.com.
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