The best volleyball team in Pitt’s history was poised to move onto the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. All that it required was a victory against a Cincinnati team they had little trouble with in the regular season, sweeping them.
If you missed it, the Panthers were stunned last night by Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament. It was surprising because Pitt not only played the match at home but because Cincinnati was a team they swept earlier this year. Pitt lost the match 3-2 and while it was obviously a close one, the result was not expected.
I’m not going to present a full recap of the match here. You can watch the result for yourself if you prefer on replay via ACC Network Extra. Despite my best planning, a family emergency prevented me from catching most of the match live. I tuned in during the fourth set, which Pitt dropped before they lost the fifth set to end their season. I didn’t rewatch the rest since how they lost is of little real importance to me in the context of this article.
What I did want to talk a little about are a couple of the misconceptions about the loss in general. Two, in particular, seem to be rampant.
As expected, the loss brought all sorts of complaining on social media. That’s nothing new, obviously. And, frankly, people have a right to their opinions and they are no more or less valid than mine. But the type of knee-jerk reactions that were bandied about in the aftermath often weren’t based on any fact or logic.
The most common of these misconceptions was surrounding Pitt’s seed. As I wrote here, I believed Pitt deserved a top four seed (they were No. 6). My thought on that has not wavered in the slightest because a seed is based on how you performed in the regular season, where Pitt was tremendous. I produced a short thread on Twitter, which you can find here, but essentially, underperforming in a tournament is not in and of itself indicative of how a team should have been seeded.
A terrible reaction to have after a loss like this is to declare that a team was seeded too high. Can that happen? Sure. But in the case of Pitt, they certainly did not deserve a lower seed because they lost this match. They happened to pick the wrong night to have a poor match. It happens in tournaments routinely and does not mean a team did not deserve the seed they received.
I used the example of Virginia’s basketball team in that thread to illustrate that point. In 2017-18, Virginia was 31-2 and one of those losses was a one-point overtime conference loss. They won the ACC Tournament and clearly deserved a No. 1 seed, which they received. They went on to become the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. Does that mean they didn’t deserve the No. 1 seed? Of course not. It means they picked a bad time to play poorly and lost in a one-game scenario.
I still maintain that Pitt did enough in the regular season to earn a top four seed and they certainly did not deserve to be seeded any lower than they were. The Panthers merely faced a good team that played exceptionally well and, coupled with their own substandard play, lost a match. It happens. All the time. These are one-match scenarios where anything can happen and good, even elite teams, lose to lower seeded ones with great frequency. Pitt’s loss was unfortunate but they are no more immune to that possibility than any other program.
Another bad misconception out there is that Pitt lost because of their schedule didn’t adequately prepare them.
So, look. Pitt’s schedule certainly did not carry the weight of some schedules of elite teams because the ACC is not as strong as other conferences. That cannot really be debated. But this is another theory full of holes for a few reasons.
First, Pitt’s schedule was really not that bad. They faced top ten (then No. 4) Penn State twice. They also played scheduled Oregon, who was No. 10 at the time they played. They also scheduled Utah, a Top 20 team. And while Florida State and Louisville did not end up ranked, both of those teams were ranked during the year and Pitt faced them a combined three times.
They played Cal Poly, an NCAA Tournament team that made the Round of 32 (before losing to Stanford) and was also ranked at one point. South Carolina, another opponent, reached the NCAA Tournament. Georgia Tech, by the end of the year, turned out to be a very good team. Pitt’s schedule may not have been as challenging as some but it was not filled with cupcakes, either. And while the Oregon win did not prove to be a great one as the Ducks floundered, the Panthers did their part in trying to schedule up with that match. And the Pepperdine Classic tournament, which included both Utah and Cal Poly (along with host Pepperdine) was really geared at putting the team in an NCAA Tournament type of situation playing on a neutral court.
But you know why the scheduling argument really doesn’t hold any weight? Because they lost to Cincinnati and while the Bearcats are good, this was a team that the Panthers actually swept earlier this year. Pitt actually played this very team this season so to argue that a match like that didn’t prepare them here doesn’t make much sense. Pitt faced better teams than Cincinnati so losing to them doesn’t prove that point in the slightest.
If Pitt had bowed out to a more elite team, then perhaps the scheduling argument holds some weight. You could argue that Pitt simply wasn’t prepared for a team that was much better than them and showed up not knowing what to expect. But that was not the case here.
Losses like this are frustrating. And this will only give critics of the ACC more ammunition that the conference is watered down. Hey, no argument there. But as Pitt proved in two matches against Penn State this year and against others like Sweet 16 bound Utah, this is an elite team. They merely weren’t elite at the most important time of the season and while that’s a bad look, it doesn’t change the fact that this was a very good team.