It's no secret that the Pittsburgh Panthers (11-1) haven't exactly put themselves through the gauntlet during non-conference play over the last 13 years. Before smacking Cal Poly around yesterday, the Panthers were rightly criticized after their loss against the Cincinnati Bearcats (10-2) on Tuesday. I say rightly because they played absolutely awful.
For the game, Pitt made just 11 field goals, shot 31.4% from the field, and despite taking 26 more free throws than Cincinnati, they lost 44 - 43 on national television. I don't agree, however, that the Panthers lost that game because they weren't prepared given their "soft" non-conference schedule.
Losing on a neutral court, albeit one that Pitt is generally good on, to a then 7-2 Cincinnati team that was a former conference "rival", is hardly the end of the world. What I don't understand is how losing to the Bearcats was a product of poor non-conference scheduling. For one, the Panthers were very familiar with Cincinnati given their time together in the Big East. More importantly, Pitt simply couldn't buy a basket, and not because they faced the most suffocating defense ever, it was simply an off-night.
The Panthers didn't hit a field goal for the last nine minutes of the first half, and didn't convert from the field in the second half from the 14:54 mark until there was just 1:09 remaining in the game. How many times is that going to happen again this year, or even over the next decade? Still, a lot of people feel as though playing more ranked opponents during non-conference play is necessary given how successful Pitt has been over the last 13 years.
Since the 2001-2002 season, the Panthers have played just seven opponents who were ranked in the top-25 during their non-conference schedule. Pitt is just 2-5 in those games, and their 73 - 64 win over Wisconsin in the 2005-2006 season was at home. Let's examine whether or not those two wins had any bearing on how the Panthers were ranked the week following those games, and whether or not they had any bearing on their ranking going into the final week of the regular season.
- 05/06 season - Wisconsin ranked 24th at the time - won 73 - 64 at home - Pitt was unranked at the time, but was ranked 22nd in the AP Top-25 the next week. Wisconsin wasn't ranked by the end of the season, while the Panthers were ranked 16th in the AP Top-25 with a record of 21-6. Wins at Villanova (3) and over West Virginia (22) probably mattered a whole lot more in the end. Would beating a so-so team as opposed to Wisconsin have mattered given that Wisconsin finished the season 19-12, and didn't even receive one vote to be in the AP Top-25 by the end of the season?
- 07/08 season - Duke ranked 6th at the time - won 65 - 64 in OT on a neutral court - Pitt was ranked 11th in the AP Top-25 at the time, and moved up to 6th the following week. Duke finished the regular season with a record of 25-3, and was ranked 6th in the final regular season AP Top-25. The Panthers weren't ranked in the AP Top-25 at the end of the regular season, but did receive 25 votes to be ranked. The Duke victory turned out to be a very good non-conference win, but only because Duke finished the season strong.
Playing a tougher non-conference schedule only matters if those opponents continue to play well. In 2002-2003, Pitt was ranked 2nd in the AP Top-25 when they lost on the road to an unranked Georgia team 79 - 67. That didn't look like a very "good" loss at the time, but when the regular season ended, the Bulldogs were ranked 25th.
In 2008-2009, the Panthers beat Siena 79 - 66 during non-conference play, which I am sure most people thought was an absolute joke. By the end of that season, the Saints received three votes to be ranked in the AP Top-25 and upset Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a double-overtime thriller.
The highest ranked team Pitt has played during non-conference play over the last 13 years was the 3rd ranked Texas Longhorns during the 2009-2010 season. The Panthers lost that game 78 - 62, which wasn't seen as a bad loss given that Pitt wasn't a ranked team at the time.
However, it perhaps looked like a game that the Panthers could have won, as the Longhorns were no longer ranked in the AP Top-25 by the end of the season, and lost in the then first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The point is, let's not confuse tougher opponents with more popular names. Whose to say the thrashing Pitt gave Stanford earlier this season won't turn out to be a quality victory. The Cardinals went on the road and beat UCONN just one day after the Panthers lost to the Bearcats - the Huskies were ranked 10th at the time.
Pitt beat a Youngstown St. team led by the preseason pick for the Horizon Conference POY Award, guard Kendrick Perry. If the Penguins win the Horizon League (very possible), and make noise in the NCAA Tournament, will we look back and think the non-conference schedule was that bad?
I wasn't one of those people that felt the Panthers should have been ranked in the AP Top-25 last week. With that said, I don't believe they lost the game to Cincinnati because their non-conference schedule didn't help prepare them for the Bearcats. It's natural to look at the schedule when it comes out and attempt to determine how Pitt will fare.
However, it won't be until the end of the season that we'll know whether or not the games we thought would be "good wins" or "bad losses" truly were what we thought they were.
 Insert your Dennis Green jokes in the comment section if you wish.