On Friday, Pitt's basketball team will face Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament. But even before the tip off occurs, the Panthers' 2015-16 season is already a success.
Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette thinks that Pitt needs to defeat the Badgers to term this year a successful one. Other Pitt fans also feel that way and it's been a sentiment I've heard from several fans. To me, however, that logic makes little sense.
If you think about it, what really is the difference between winning one game and getting bounced immediately? Sure, it can help a young team gain some experience and winning a tournament game is nice. But unless you get to the second weekend, I'd argue that the impact is minimal. Staying in the tournament for two extra days just doesn't mean that much. In addition, there's not much respect for the Top 32. The Sweet 16, on the other hand, is a phrase synonymous with college basketball. Recruits know it, fans know it, and if you reach that milestone, it just carries a lot more weight. An exception can be made for scoring a massive upset in the first game, but this wouldn't be that.
I'm fine with people thinking Pitt needs to get to the Sweet 16 for this year to be a success, but I don't see the big difference in winning only one game to get to the Round of 32. Nice? Of course. Ideal? Absolutely. Winning a game is always better than not doing so. But at the end of the day, if you don't pull off a huge upset, winning one game in the NCAAs just doesn't mean very much.
But all of that aside, I think simply getting to this stage means the season is a success. Here's why.
Pitt's claim to fame right now is being able to consistently get to the tournament. The Panthers have made the NCAAs in 11 of Jamie Dixon's 13 seasons. That's an impressive stat, but it was another one that have given Pitt fans reason to complain lately. Entering this year, Pitt those two missed years had come within the past four seasons. A third in five years means it's no longer an aberration, but a trend. Pitt avoided that by getting back to the Big Dance this year and while we can't look too far ahead, the team really doesn't lose much next season. This is a team that should again reach the NCAA Tournament next year and those two years of missed tournaments are further in the rear view mirror.
It goes beyond that, of course. Expectations are the most important thing when determining if a team had a successful year and Pitt's season passes the eye test there. Many people forget that this was a team projected to finish tenth in the ACC. They finished ninth there and were within a stone's throw of even finishing fifth and getting a double bye in the ACC Tournament. Pitt already slightly exceeded expectations by finishing ninth, but weren't very far from finishing significantly higher.
Finishing ninth in the conference still landed them a spot in the NCAAs, and that's significant. After all, look at Clemson and Virginia Tech, who both finished ahead of the Panthers in the conference standings but didn't get to the Big Dance. How did Pitt accomplish that? With a strong non-conference schedule showing. Now, we can argue all day about Pitt's light non-conference slate, but Pitt's strong record there shouldn't be ignored. The Panthers won all of the games they should and the lone loss came against a ranked Purdue team.
Many fans take those games for granted, but even a casual glance around the NCAA shows you shouldn't fall into that trap. Pitt's opponent in the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin, lost games to Western Illinois and Milwaukee. Syracuse lost to an abysmal 8-24 St. John's team. Miami lost to Northeastern. There are scores of examples like that. These are games that look easy on paper, but still have to be won. Pitt did that when many other teams suffered upset losses.
Plus, making the NCAAs is an important achievement when it comes to recruiting. With Pitt's success last decade, fans want more than that. That is not only understandable, but should be the case. Pitt cannot settle for simply getting to the event and needs to start progressing a little further than they have been to get the program back on the right track. However, getting the NCAAs and not advancing is far less disastrous than not making it altogether.
None of this is to suggest that Pitt should be happy with merely getting to the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis. But in light of the team's ups and downs in the past few years, the high amount of transfers, and the low expectations for the team, this year has already been a success.