Pitt (9-1) looks like a legit top-10 team and has an established star with Ashton Gibbs (18.9 ppg), who led the Panthers with 17 points despite facing suffocating defense from Fred Gulley for stretches of the afternoon. In Gulley's 13 minutes, Gibbs scored on him just once.
After getting blown away by Stanford and then suffering a close loss to a mediocre Virginia Tech squad, OSU's took Big East heavyweight Pitt to the wire.
That is a very encouraging sign for this young and ever-improving Cowboy basketball team. For Cowboy fans looking for signs of life and visible growth from OSU (6-3), look no further than the narrow loss to the Panthers.
For a while it looked like the Cowboys were going to get run out of the building, Pitt turned a 2-point early lead into a 14-point first half lead and then led by as many as 16 in the second but the Pokes fought back, getting as close as five in the second half.
The biggest reason for optimism was the play of Le'Bryan Nash. The freshman has been polarizing the first month of the season but bookend games in MSG show just how much he's grown in a short time.
After being held scoreless in just 11 minutes in the loss to VT, Nash has now averaged 17.3 points in the past four games, and even that is pulled down because he scored just nine in an unspectacular performance in the win against Langston.
Nash finished with 20 points on 9-of-20 shooting and connected on 2-for-3 at the free throw line. He also had two rebounds and a block.
Nash came in shortly after the 15-minute mark in the first half and seldom left afterward. Nash finished with a team-high 33 minutes, mostly because the Cowboys were not competitive without him, and that's the down side on Saturday.
If Nash is the same player he was a month ago, OSU loses this game by maybe 30 points. Nash is clearly this team's best player and the supporting cast isn't improving fast enough around him.
OSU got quality play from fellow freshman Cezar Guerrero, who hit two 3's to help ignite OSU's comeback in the first half and played 13 minutes of turnover-free basketball. Philip Jurick also had a good game, as he was physically imposing on the defensive interior and finished with eight rebounds and six blocked shots.
Two things that will likely to stick in coach Travis Ford's craw though, other than the loss itself, will be the erratic play of J.P. Olukemi and the point guard position as a whole.
Point guard, despite its depth, has proven to be Oklahoma State's biggest weak spot through nine games. Dowell, Guerrero and Gulley have all started games but none have done enough to stake their claim that they should start. Dowell played the best on Saturday with 10 points and five assists with only one turnover in 24 minutes, but his 4-of-10 shooting performance, especially shot selection, will raise a few eyebrows in the film study.
The same goes for Olukemi. Ford raved in the preseason about how he had been the Cowboys' most dominant player in practice but it has not translated to the court so far.
Olukemi finished with eight points on 3-of-10 shooting and the vast majority of those misses were on low-quality, forced attempts in traffic. Those low-quality shots have become an unfortunate trend for him. He has shooting performances this season now of 3-10, 2-6, 0-2 and 1-6.
And in games against Langston and Tulsa, he made 3-of-4 in both games — combined. OSU severely overmatched Langston and he had a big head-to-head matchup advantage against TU. He should have been more assertive in both games.
There needs to be a mix of more shots and higher quality shots for him to become the player he is capable of being and, frankly, the player this team needs him to be.
One area where Olukemi, and the rest of the Cowboys shined, was in pressure defense. OSU forced Pitt into 12 turnovers and several timeouts that were made to avoid others.
OSU ran what appeared to be a half-court trap that fell into a 1-3-1 zone for much of the second half, which really assisted in OSU making its run. Getting outrebounded 43-25 undid a lot of that positive defensive work but that was arguably OSU's best defensive performance of the year against unquestionably its best opponent.
All in all, this was a solid and encouraging effort from OSU against a team that should make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
OSU still has plenty to improve upon the rest of the way but Saturday showed a sign that Ford has things moving in the right direction.