Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Seasons in Pittsburgh Basketball History
One of the trademarks of the Jamie Dixon era in Pittsburgh has been, for all the unmet expectations of fans, the Panthers have exceeded just as many expectations under his watch. However, for a better perspective, how would some of Dixon's surprising Pitt teams measure up with some of the school's most surprising teams of years past?
We didn't just look at bottom lines. We looked at how certain teams found success, or even failure, in some cases, and why that success or failure might have been thought hard to come by at the time.
It isn't just coach-speak—or athlete-speak, as it were—to say there are inherent challenges with comparing one season to another. This is especially true when tasked with making apples-to-apples comparisons among different teams in different eras of college basketball.
For example, one surprising season that just missed our cut involved the 1940-41 Panthers, who bounced back from an 8-9 campaign to reach the Final Four. On one hand, they made it further in the NCAA tournament than any team in school history one year removed from not making the tournament at all. On the other hand, is it fair to call that team as surprising or more surprising than the teams that did make our cut, when factors like a smaller bracket and a shorter season made quick turnarounds more possible?
Giving the next generation its due credit without selling short the previous one, or vice versa, isn't much easier. I'm not one to date myself, but, in the interest of maintaining candor with our readers, I'm not old enough to fully appreciate the playing careers of such Pitt legends as Charles Smith (pictured), Billy Knight or Don Hennon. Such limitations will inevitably alter my perspective, even though it's common knowledge those guys turned quite a few heads in their day.
Nevertheless, we've given this assignment the same good-faith effort we give the rest. Let our ranking of the most surprising seasons in Pitt men's basketball history begin—and let the debating begin as well.
5. 2011-12: 22-17 Overall; 5-13 in Big East; Won CBI Championship
Fans will always remember the 2011-12 season for what could have been, what was expected to be and what never was.
The brief downfall of Pitt under Jamie Dixon started with the unforeseen departure of a player who might have one day become the face of a talented Pitt team. It was expedited with a devastating injury to another key player.
McDonald's All-American Khem Birch (pictured) debuted with the Panthers at center as a pure freshman. Power forward Nasir Robinson had seniority, which meant Birch would get playing time right away, but not at his natural position. Furthermore, Pitt's deliberate offense, which flew in the face of Birch's style of play, made him a prime candidate to drive head coach Jamie Dixon nuts.
After 10 games Birch transferred to UNLV out of dissatisfaction, leaving the Panthers with one fewer impact player. Dixon, for one, tends not to air out dirty laundry, but when Birch returned to Pittsburgh via its flagship men's basketball radio station, 93.7 The Fan (KDKA-FM), in midseason and put his old team on blast, the feeling was somewhat mutual, as Sporting News college hoops writer Mike DeCourcy recalled.
At UNLV, where, ironically, Birch was recognized for his defensive play, he would go on to earn Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors twice in a row before joining the NBA's Miami Heat as an undrafted free agent.
Meanwhile, the 2011-12 Panthers had other problems to solve. Before Birch bolted, point guard Tray Woodall, in the midst of a high-scoring junior campaign, suffered groin and abdominal injuries in The City Game and missed significant time.
Pitt fell out of national favor by dropping its first seven conference games, including a 62-39 rout by Rutgers Jan. 11, 2012 that remains the team's most lopsided home loss since the Petersen Events Center opened. For the first time under Dixon, the program appeared to be a rudderless ship. However, hope was on the horizon.
Those Panthers did end on a high, albeit bittersweet, note, defeating Washington State twice at The Pete to capture the College Basketball Invitational championship. During that tournament, light bulbs seemed to go on for Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna, and Lamar Patterson also showed signs of maturity in the frontcourt while a foreign prodigy named Steven Adams was on his way.
4. 1986-87: 25-8 Overall; 12-4 in Big East; Advanced to NCAA Tournament 2nd Rd.
The Panthers began Big East play in the 1982-83 season, accompanied by a loud thud. That was the sound of Dr. Roy Chipman hitting a wall with the program, culminating with a 15-14 campaign in 1985-86. It took a leap of faith that replacement head coach Paul Evans still had magic up his sleeve after continued success at Navy, and that faith was rewarded with amazing quickness.
Georgetown, engineering its own surprising season, and Syracuse emerged as favorites to capture the 1986-87 Big East crown. Apparently, nobody bothered to tell the Panthers, who forged a stunning three-way tie for the conference's regular season title with both teams. It was the greatest single-season turnaround in league history.
In fact, Pitt swept the Orangemen, who would join Providence as Final Four flag-bearers for the Big East, during a season-high eight-game winning streak that made the shared conference championship possible. Syracuse got revenge in the Big East tournament, but not before the Panthers held off Seton Hall Mar. 6, 1987 for their first-ever Big East tournament victory.
A school-record-tying 25th victory came exactly one week later against Marist in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Arizona's McKale Center, then a dramatic comeback against Oklahoma fell just short. Nevertheless, Pitt had put a sudden and emphatic end to a forgettable period in program history by finishing No. 12 in the final AP Poll—at the time, its highest final ranking ever.
Furthermore, the '86-'87 Panthers raised eyebrows by breaking team records for single-season scoring, scoring average, field goals made and free throws made. Leading the offensive charge were guard Curtis Aiken (pictured wearing No. 14), a current Pitt basketball color commentator; center Charles Smith, Pitt's eventual career scoring champion; and forward Demetreus Gore, who replicated the 1,000-point seasons enjoyed by the other two.
In addition, though his true claim to fame wouldn't happen until the following year, forward Jerome Lane "sent in" 15.8 points per game and grabbed a nation-best 13.5 rebounds per game, the latter of which set a Big East record. Lane and Smith were both named All-Americans.
With Evans at the helm, assisted by up-and-comer and Moon Township native John Calipari, Pitt had gone from being an also-ran to a proverbial beast of the (Big) East almost overnight.
3. 2009-10: 25-9 Overall; 13-5 in Big East; Advanced to NCAA Tournament 2nd Rd.
Some have called for Pitt to turn up the heat on Jamie Dixon's seat in recent years. For those who do believe the program would be better off without him moving forward, let's throw this out there:
He helped the 2009-10 Panthers earn a No. 3 NCAA tournament seed with a starting five consisting of Ashton Gibbs, Jermaine Dixon, Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson.
Enough said, right?
We don't mean to condescend to those guys. Gibbs, after all, won Big East Most Improved Player honors that year, and Wanamaker averaged a healthy 12.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. The others proved to be integral role players.
But that season demonstrated precisely what a good job Jamie Dixon has done getting so much out of teams that, on paper, seemed to have so little. When put that way, one might say the '09-'10 Panthers were the quintessential Dixon-era Pitt squad.
After coming painfully close to his first-ever Final Four, the program's patriarch waved goodbye to team leaders DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Understandably, Big East media picked Pitt to finish ninth in the conference. The new-look Panthers enjoyed the last laugh, finishing second.
Still, the number nine was germane to them; this would be a school-record ninth straight season of 20-plus wins. What was most memorable about this one, however, was the rather circuitous route they had to take to get there.
The cardiac kids of Cardiac Hill had to tough out a three-point win over Wofford on opening night at the Petersen Events Center, and they needed double overtime to continue their ongoing dominance of Duquesne on Dec. 2, 2009 in the final City Game ever played in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena. But that was just the beginning.
Pitt opened Big East play in most unlikely fashion, sweeping a three-game road trip through Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut. Capping its season-best overall win streak of eight games was a sensational, come-from-behind overtime victory over visiting Louisville Jan. 16, 2010.
When the Panthers ambushed No. 3 Villanova at The Pete Feb. 21, it marked their third upset of a top-5 team that season. But perhaps the most surprising moment of the 2009-10 season involved their second one, and arch-rival West Virginia set the stage quite nicely.
The Backyard Brawl was as contentious as ever. Initially, WVU had caught Pitt in a midseason slump, winning 70-51 in Morgantown, though Pitt fans may remember that loss more for its displays of good and bad sportsmanship. Enemy coach Bob Huggins had interrupted the game to scold his own fans for hurling foreign objects at the Panthers bench.
Naturally, the Oakland Zoo was as loud as it had been in some time when the No. 5 Mountaineers came to Pittsburgh for the rematch Feb. 12, 2010. As they did against Louisville, the Panthers rallied very late and very furiously to force overtime. What transpired this time was the longest game in the history of The Pete, and Pitt finally prevailed, 98-95, in the third OT.
When asked by Pittsburgh radio host Gregg Giannotti to describe the "classic" contest, Huggins could only muster the following:
"It wasn't a classic for us, Gregg."
By the time the penultimate regular season game rolled around, and Gibbs hit a buzzer-beating three to sink Providence, the ensuing celebration (pictured) almost seemed anti-climactic after all the Panthers had been through. And when their luck ran out once and for all against Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it could only dampen the surrounding mood so much.
After losing all the best players from one of the best teams in Pitt history, a sharp downturn in 2009-10 would have been readily forgiven. Instead, fans were taken on one of the most incredible magic carpet rides the program has ever experienced.
2. 2001-02: 29-6 Overall; 13-3 in Big East; Advanced to Sweet 16
Once upon a time, the Panthers, under head coach Ralph Willard, puttered along at the bottom of the Big East, playing in front of crowds that could be charitably described as short of capacity.
Once upon a time, the only certainty about Willard's replacement, Ben Howland, and Howland's assistant, Jamie Dixon, was that they couldn't do worse.
Once upon a time, the Petersen Events Center was just a pile of dirt and some steel beams on hallowed old Pitt Stadium ground.
Once upon a time, the men's basketball team at the University of Pittsburgh proved an unforeseen berth in the previous Big East final was no accident, and made its last season at the Fitzgerald Field House one for the ages.
The 2001-02 Panthers, bolstered by a Knight in shining armor, won a Field House-record 16 of 17 home games. They easily surpassed the preseason media projection of a sixth-place finish by winning the West Division of the Big East, Pitt's first Big East hoops title of any kind in almost 15 years.
Face-of-the-program point guard Brandin Knight (pictured), a current assistant to Dixon and the fourth Panther to have his jersey retired, erupted with 15.6 points and 7.1 assists per game en route to Big East Most Improved Player, Big East Co-Player of the Year and All-America honors.
And as long as the word "guard" is top of mind, it's worth noting the Panthers, as a team, developed a knack for doing that exceptionally well under Howland, the consensus national coach of the year. His vastly improved '01-'02 squad allowed 60.9 points per game, the fewest by Pitt in half a century and a harbinger of defensive excellence to come.
Among the burgeoning players in Knight's supporting cast were fellow guard Julius Page and forward Chevy Troutman, two of the earliest recruiting success stories in Pitt's modern renaissance. Together, they stacked wins over erstwhile conference bullies Boston College, Syracuse and Georgetown at a head-spinning rate. They entered the postseason with a top-10 AP ranking, and suddenly, for the first time since the era of mustaches, short shorts and broken backboards, Pitt was truly relevant in major college basketball again.
The Panthers made a return trip to the Big East final that had an unhappy, double-overtime ending against Connecticut. But by then they had already set a new school record for single-season wins, and, fittingly, they got to collect two more in front of a hometown crowd.
The NCAA tournament brought them back to the friendly confines of Mellon Arena Mar. 15 and 17, 2002, where Pitt reached its first Sweet 16 since 1974 and second all-time by beating Central Connecticut State and California.
For the Panthers' remarkable run in 2001-02 to end against a lower-seeded Kent State squad that featured future NFL star Antonio Gates was equally surprising. But that Sweet 16 loss turned out to be a small setback in what would become a new, prosperous era for Pittsburgh basketball.
1. 1973-74: 25-4 Overall; Advanced to Elite 8
Led by head coach Charles "Buzz" Ridl, the 1973-74 Panthers top our chart not only because of their unprecedented achievements, but because those achievements happened with a kind of team we may never see at Pitt again.
Those truly were the "Pittsburgh" Panthers. In fact, Ridl had recruited a team whose starting five in '73-'74 consisted entirely of Pittsburgh natives.
Eventual All-American Billy Knight (pictured), with 21.8 points and 13.4 rebounds per game, spearheaded a homegrown lineup that also featured Mickey Martin, Jim Bolla, Kirk Bruce and Tom Richards. Not until Jamie Dixon's recent backyard binge, so to speak, have we seen that much local talent in the program.
Although that Steel City quintet would later be immortalized in a February 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated, they hadn't put Pitt back on the map yet as they entered Ridl's sixth season on the job.
The adage that the best things happen when least expected held true from the start. Pitt opened with an 82-78 loss at rival West Virginia, then its first win, a 36-21 result at Rutgers, was marred by a student sit-in and declared final at halftime by officials due to crowd control issues.
Ultimately, though, the seed planted by the Panthers that day grew like never imagined. That abbreviated victory dubiously opened a school-record 22-game winning streak that included decisive drubbings of Duquesne, Virginia, Duke and Syracuse. Three of those teams had beaten the Panthers by a combined margin of 27 points the previous season.
An epic journey that began under unusual circumstances would also end under unusual circumstances. After inverting their fortune with an 83-78 win over WVU in their regular season finale, the Panthers, coincidentally, were sent to Morgantown for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
They defeated St. Joseph's and Furman to reach the first Elite 8 in program history, but then were forced to meet top-seeded North Carolina State in front of a predictably hostile crowd in Raleigh. The Wolfpack whipped the Panthers, 100-72, and would go on to win the national championship.
Pitt ended the 1973-74 campaign with a No. 16 Associated Press ranking, marking the first time it had ever been included in the final AP poll. That once seemed unthinkable for a team that, in five previous seasons under Ridl, had finished, in chronological order: 4-20; 12-12; 14-10; 12-12 and 12-14.
The Panthers hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in over 10 years. They hadn't even qualified for the NIT in exactly a decade. But despite being mired in mediocrity, Ridl put a team on the floor in 1973-74 that is still today argued as maybe the greatest Pitt squad ever, and certainly the most geographically unique.
When will the Panthers, for better or worse, surprise us next? How can Jamie Dixon, who has given new meaning to the term "overachieve," top previous coaching efforts?
Most media perceive Pitt as a middle-of-the-road ACC team in 2014-15, so a first-ever trip to the conference final would be a good start. Getting into the program's first Final Four of the post-World War II era, despite one of its top scorers suffering a serious preseason injury, would be a better one.
Okay, maybe that's going out on a limb, even for Dixon. But when Ben Howland bolted for UCLA in 2003 and Dixon was promoted, people wondered if Pitt would go back from whence it came.
Just like people wondered if Pitt would ever have another player taken in the first round of the NBA Draft again.
Or if another local recruit would ever thrive with the program.
Or if the Panthers would ever reach another Sweet 16.
Or if they would ever compete in the Big East.
As the history of men's basketball in Pittsburgh shows, stranger things have happened.
Statistics courtesy of Greg Hotchkiss, E.J. Borghetti and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.