The beginning of the '07-'08 campaign looked bright for Jamie Dixon and the Pittsburgh Panthers.
They began the season 10-0, earned a well-fought road win at Washington, and blew out Oklahoma State before heading on the road for their first real test of the year.
Then, on December 20th, the Panthers went into MSG and pulled off a major upset—a 65-64 victory over the seventh-ranked Duke Blue Devils, improving their record to an impressive 11-0 and vaulting them to sixth in both the ESPN and AP rankings. Star guard Levance Fields was the hero, hitting the game-winning three-pointer in overtime.
During the battle with Duke, Mike Cook, one of the Panthers’ starting forwards and team leaders, tore his ACL, knocking him out for the season. Nine days later against the Dayton Flyers, Fields broke his left foot, and the Panthers lost by 25 points, falling to 11-1.
It was the beginning of the end.
With Cook out for the season, and Fields out eight to twelve weeks, the Panthers have struggled, losing on the road at Cincinnati and then at home at the Zoo against Rutgers by double digits.
In the game against the Scarlet Knights, the Panthers were outscored by 20 in the second half. Keep in mind they were at home, and playing against one of the worst teams in the Big East (2-7 conference, 10-11 overall). It became clear that the losses of Cook down low and Fields running the point had become major factors.
The fact is that the end of an era at Pittsburgh is upon us. Ben Howland built up the program’s reputation from 2000 to 2003 before leaving for UCLA, but the tides have begun to turn.
Ronald Ramon and the injured Mike Cook are seniors. Juniors Levance Fields and Sam Young will be coveted draft picks this spring. The Panthers will have a new leader next year, likely young rebounding specialist DeJuan Blair, and he will certainly have a heavy load to carry.
The Panthers will undoubtedly make the tournament. They are 16-4 and have only one ranked team left on their schedule for the season. Their lucky number is 65—the number of teams that make the dance.
It is the years to come that Panther fans should be concerned about.