I try to avoid putting too much stock into things such as preseason Bracketology rankings that drop several months before the college basketball season begins, but some things are just too odd to ignore.
Case in point, Jerry Palm's early Bracketology was released this past week. In it, Palm gives a full rundown of who he expects to be in the Big Dance come next year. Left out of his field of 64 are the Pittsburgh Panthers. It's also worth noting that Palm doesn't think next season is going to be a down one for the ACC - he promptly placed a whopping nine of the conference's teams in there, including Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, and Louisville, with Syracuse and Miami in play-in games.
And, for what it's worth, Pitt didn't 'almost' make the cut, either. Palm not only left Pitt out of his first four out, but adds insult to injury by placing Clemson in that category. Add it all up and, that's right - he has a full ten ACC teams ahead of the Panthers next season.
The somewhat shocking thing is that Palm isn't alone. ESPN's Joe Lunardi also predicts Pitt will be out. He, too, has nine ACC teams in also projects a tenth, Clemson, to be one of the first teams left out. Lunardi's group of left out actually includes eight teams and the Panthers aren't even one of those.
Now, for the record, neither of these guys are Pitt 'haters'. Last year when we updated the Bracketology rankings frequently in advance of the NCAA Tournament, both repeatedly had the Panthers still in the NCAA Tournament even despite the rough patch. Plus, these guys are in the business of making predictions. Silly things like vendettas or biases against a team only would hurt their credibility.
But I do believe both have also missed the mark here.
For one thing, Pitt has been doubted so many times of the years, it's not even funny anymore. Despite all that and many preseason projections similar to this, the program has missed the NCAAs only twice since the 2001-02 season. Been there, done that. There will surely be people that read this article and think that I'm the crazy one for expecting Pitt to be in. Happens every year so this year shouldn't be any different. But Pitt always seems to respond and even in the years they missed the Big Dance, they won 22 and 19 games in all. They've missed a couple of seasons, but for the most part betting against them to make the field isn't all that healthy.
Want a perfect example of what I'm talking about? How about last season when Lunardi left Pitt out of an early Bracketology ranking? So what happened? I explained then that they were probably a tournament team and they went on to make the field. Pitt has been disrespected so many times like this that it's old hat by now. He wasn't alone, so it's not fair to single him out, either. NBC Sports had it wrong, leaving Pitt out. Also, so did the Washington Post. And so did probably countless others.
This. Happens. Every. Year. Every year it seems to be a tired Woe is Pitt routine and the team has responded by making the NCAA Tournament in 13 of the 15 years since 2001 when Ben Howland first led Pitt to the Big Dance.
But even more importantly than pointing to things like past seasons, Pitt made the NCAA Tournament last year relatively comfortably as a No. 10 seed even and returns mostly everyone from that team. Sure, point guard James Robinson is a significant loss but to be fair, his 37% field goal shooting certainly didn't help matters. I will never underestimate what he did for the team in terms of running the offense and I've been one of his biggest supporters in believing he was undervalued. But at the end of the day, it's a loss Pitt can manage. They return, quite easily, their two best players in Michael Young and Jamel Artis, as well as six of their top seven scorers.
And when you balance out all the team expects to gain with its incoming recruits as well as everyone else being a year older, I fully expect this squad to be better than last year's group. If that team made the NCAAs, I'm not quite sure how this one falls short.
So, there's the loss of head coach Jamie Dixon. Significant loss - no doubt about it. But while many fans have reservations about new coach Kevin Stallings, this is not a completely unknown guy with no experience. Stallings hasn't had even close to the amount of success in reaching the postseason that Dixon has. However, it seems quite the leap to assume that he can't navigate a strong core of talent to at least getting into the NCAA Tournament. He's been the NCAA Tournament seven times with Vanderbilt and twice with tiny Illinois State. Even if one face value you believe that Pitt has downgraded with Stallings, he's far from a complete unknown commodity or a guy with no success in reaching the postseason.
To Pitt's schedule, it's really nothing they haven't seen before. There are a few challenging non-conference games, but as I wrote recently, it's still a slate they should get through relatively unharmed. And while the ACC schedule is difficult, it always is. This is not a drastic change in competition for Pitt and overall, the schedule isn't much different from the past.
When you add it all up, it's very difficult to predict this not being an NCAA Tournament team. That's no guarantee, of course, and perhaps Pitt falls short. Even though it's happened only twice in 15 years, it has happened. But when you add up all of the evidence, it gets very difficult to bet against this group to reach a nominal goal like that.
I like and respect the work that both Palm and Lunardi do - but I think they've got this one wrong ... just as a lot of people did last season.
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