Pitt's NCAA run ends following dominant decade
Pittsburgh's rocky season will end in a postseason tournament that will almost certainly start close to home. Just not the one the Panthers envisioned when the season began.
A lethargic 64-52 loss to Georgetown in the second round of the Big East tournament on Wednesday ended Pitt's improbable hopes of making the NCAAs for an 11th straight season, meaning they'll have to buy a ticket if they want to watch the second and third round games at Consol Energy Center next week.
Injuries, dismal shooting and sometimes uninspired play means the Panthers (17-16) will likely head to the NIT for the first time since 2001. The school has put in a bid to host an opening round game, though it will likely do little to ease the sting of the program's worst season in more than a decade.
''Obviously, we knew we had to win this tournament here, and obviously, it's been a nice streak and something that I guess only a few schools have done more,'' coach Jamie Dixon said.
The last time Pitt played in the NIT was 2001, a season the Panthers used as a springboard to Big East dominance. Even with a woeful 5-13 conference mark this season, Pitt has the conference's best record over the last decade.
Though the players talked extensively about the fear of being on a team that saw the postseason streak snapped, the Panthers were never able to really put it together after point guard Tray Woodall went down with a groin/abdominal injury against Duquesne on Nov. 30.
While Woodall was able to key a brief four-game winning streak in late January, the Panthers never really recovered from his absence and the departure of freshman center Khem Birch, who left the team in mid-December to transfer to UNLV.
Forced to constantly tinker with his lineup and unable to get consistent production out of junior center Dante Taylor, Pitt hardly looked like the defending Big East champions. Once unbeatable at Petersen Events Center, the Panthers lost at home seven times, including crushing defeats at the hands of Wagner, Rutgers and South Florida.
''Yeah, it's tough,'' senior forward Nasir Robinson said. ''I mean, obviously this is the first time in our lives we've gone through this situation. We're just going to finish off strong, NIT or whatever, we're just going to finish off strong and keep fighting.''
Something the Panthers failed to do at times as the losses piled up. Their exit from Madison Square Garden on Wednesday looked an awful lot like the 15 defeats that came before.
Pitt played well at times, then went cold and didn't have an answer defensively against the bigger, more talented Hoyas.
''I just thought we would play better,'' Dixon said.
He thought that all season. It only happened sporadically and didn't really happen at all when Dixon moved preseason Big East Player of the Year Ashton Gibbs to point after Woodall went down.
A gifted shooter, Gibbs struggled running Pitt's offense and with their best player misfiring - he shot a career-worst 38 percent from the floor - the rest of the Panthers failed to make up the difference.
More jarring than the team's offensive issues were the problems on the other end of the floor. Long one of the Big East's most physical teams, Pitt let opponents shoot 45 percent from the floor and averaged just 2.2 blocks per game, worst in the league.
The NIT offers a chance at redemption, though only if the Panthers can put their disappointing regular season behind them.
''Yeah, I'll play NIT,'' Gibbs said. ''It's basketball at the end of the day. That's what we came to college for is to play basketball. Just wherever we can play, we're definitely going to play our hardest.''