So the Pittsburgh Panthers limped to the regular-season finish line, netting just three wins and four losses over their last seven games of conference play. However, they now find themselves in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament with a showdown against Virginia (26-6, 16-2) tipping-off in just a few hours. I am not sure it's surprising that Pitt is playing well this time of year, but its next week that Panther fans should really care about.
Pitt made three straight Sweet 16's from the 01-02 season to the 03-04 season. If they don't make it this season, they'll have only advanced that far just twice in the last 10 years. That's a tough pill to swallow, as the Panthers have won an average of 25.6 games per season over the last decade, and can still raise that figure with more wins this season. Furthermore, they've been ranked at least one time in the AP Top-25 Poll every season for the last 13 seasons.
The bottom line is they are, and have been a really good team, especially before the NCAA Tournament starts. With that said, there is just something about win-or-go-home scenarios that seems to bring out the worst in Pitt, and I don't think an ACC Tournament Championship will change that.
Regardless of how the Panthers have done in their conference tournament, it's done nothing for them when the lights have gotten the brightest - NCAA Tournament. Here are the Panthers opening weekend exits during the Dixon era along with how well they performed in the Big East Tournament leading up to that:
04-05: Lost to eighth-seeded Pacific in 1st Round, 79-71 - Lost to Villanova in Quarterfinals, 67-58
05-06: Lost to thirteenth-seeded Bradley in 2nd Round, 72-66 - Lost to Syracuse in Big East Title game, 65-61
07-08: Lost to fifth-seeded Michigan St. in 2nd Round, 65-54 - Won over Georgetown in Big East Title game, 74-65
09-10: Lost to sixth-seeded Xavier in 2nd Round, 71-68 - Lost to Notre Dame in Quarterfinals, 50-45
10-11: Lost to eighth-seeded Butler in 3rd Round, 71-70 - Lost to UCONN in Quarterfinals, 76-74
12-13: Lost to ninth-seeded Wichita St. in 2nd Round, 73-55 - Lost to Syracuse in Quarterfinals, 62-59
Well that was an unfortunate trip down memory lane for a lot of Pitt fans. In all these early exits, the Panthers had at least a one-round bye (04-05, 09-10, 10-11, 12-13). The two years they advanced to the Big East Championship, they were the 6th seed (06) and the 7th seed (08).
Regardless, none of that mattered the following week, though. Pitt lost immediately in 04-05 and 12-13, and only made it to the weekend in 05-06, 07-08, 09-10, and 10-11. The 10-11 one was perhaps the worst because the Panthers were the one-seed in the Southeast Region.
It's probably unfair to leave out the two years in which they advanced to at least the Sweet 16, here they are:
06-07: Lost to second-seeded UCLA in Sweet 16, 64-55 - Lost to Georgetown in Big East Title game, 65-42
08-09: Lost to third-seeded Villanova in Elite 8, 78-76 - Lost to WVU in Quarterfinals, 74-60
I left them out initially because there is just nothing about this current team that reminds me of two most successful ones. The 08-09 team featured some of best players in Pitt history in DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. Even Levance Fields was arguably better than any player on the current roster - at least in big moments. The 06-07 team had a formidable frontcourt in Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall, and Mike Cook; Fields and Young were also Panthers at the time.
Perhaps Pitt will beat the Cavaliers and maybe even win the ACC Tournament. They are no longer on the bubble - not entirely sure they were - but with each win, they raise the expectations of Panther fans. Expectations that recent history says will go unfulfilled.