Let’s take a break from professional sports just for a moment so we can all bask in the glory that is college basketball. More specifically, March Madness. My alma mater, Pittsburgh, is ready to take names.
After losing four starters going into the 2009-10 season, including NBA draft selections Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, I figured that Pitt would go into a transitional phase as younger players figured out their roles. My fear was that the program would fall into a brief one or two year stretch of Big East mediocrity.
Fortunately, and somewhat shockingly, Pitt retained its poise under Jamie Dixon, who had won the Naismith College Coach of the Year award just a season prior. The school finished the year fourth in the rough and tumble Big East, a 25-9 record, and a #18 national ranking.
The magic eventually ran out in the NCAA Tournament, as Pitt fell in the second round to Xavier. It mattered little though, since the team had already far exceeded expectations.
This year was different. The bar was set high, as the team returned four starters and the bulk of their reserves. Preseason polls ranked Pitt in the top-10 and favorites to win the Big East.
Living up to the hype, the Panthers won the regular season Big East title with a 27-5 record, going 15-3 in conference play.
Hopes of taking home the Big East Tournament crown were dashed when Pitt bowed out in their first game against UConn after a double bye, losing on a Kemba Walker buzzer beater. I’d like to think that losing that game was a blessing in disguise, as Pitt now has had the last week off to rest and prepare for the Big Dance.
Even with the loss, Pitt was still able to lock up a one seed, along with Ohio State, Kansas, and Duke. Pitt is the only one seed not to win its conference tournament.
Under the new format, there will now be four play-in games instead of one as in previous years. The Panthers will take on the winner of the NC Asheville/Arkansas-Little Rock game. St. John’s, who beat Pitt late in the season this year, is the only other Big East team in the Southeastern bracket.
Despite its regular season success under Jamie Dixon, the Panthers have struggled in the NCAA tourney. When I was attending Pitt, the team made to the Sweet 16 only once. For a couple years, it seemed like a struggle just to win a game in the second round. In 2009, the team went to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1984. Is this a sign that Dixon is ready to take his team to new heights? Or was it just a tease? Either way, I’ll be watching intently as the madness unfolds.