With just three weeks left before the Big East Tournament, the Pitt Panthers still feel they have a lot to prove. With an overall record of 23-2, 11-1 in the Big East, two more Big East wins will guarantee the Panthers get a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament. That's not all the Panthers have their sights set on.
When the polls were released this week, the Panthers found themselves at No. 4 in both the AP and Coaches' Poll—this despite impressive wins at West Virginia and Villanova last week. With former No. 1 Ohio State losing to Wisconsin on Saturday, that opened the door for someone else to move up. That team was Kansas, but the Jayhawks reign as the nation's top-ranked team lasted one day, thanks to an 84-68 loss to in-state rival Kansas State on Monday night. That loss opens the door for another No. 1 team in next week's poll, with Texas, Ohio State and Pitt all likely to receive consideration, pending the outcome of this week's games.
When the latest rankings came out, the Pitt players could care less about the fact they were denied the opportunity to be the nation's top-ranked team.
"It's always great to try to be ranked number-one any time, but we knew it might not happen because Ohio State and Texas were all ranked ahead of us," senior Gary McGhee said. "We have one or two losses. We just try to come out and win every game, and play hard.
"It doesn't bother us at all. We just try to keep getting those wins in the win column. That's all we're focused on."
What's interesting about this latest set of rankings is that Pitt is one of four teams to receive first-place votes. Some wonder, why not the Panthers, considering the fact the Panthers are in first-place in what is perceived to be the nation's top basketball conference. There's more evidence to support the Panthers as being the top-ranked team. Texas (22-3) is ranked ahead of the Panthers at No. 3, a team Pitt beat in November. There's also the subject of RPI. According to realtimerpi.com, Pitt has six wins (No. 4 Georgetown, No. 8 Texas, No. 13 UConn, No. 20 Villanova, No. 21 Syracuse, No. 22 West Virginia) over teams ranked in the top 25 in terms of RPI. Pitt is ranked No. 6 in RPI. Pitt's two losses have also come to teams with high RPI rankings (No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 25 Tennessee). Also, out of those six wins over top-25 RPI teams, only two of those wins were at the Petersen Events Center. In the next two weeks, Pitt has games against St. John's (No. 17), West Virginia (No. 22) and Louisville (No. 24).
Kansas, prior to losing to Kansas State on Monday night, had one win over a Top-25 RPI opponent; a 87-79 win over Arizona in November. The only other team in the Top-25 in RPI that Kansas played was Texas, who beat the Jayhawks 75-63 on January 22.
Texas has two wins over Top-25 RPI teams; North Carolina (No. 11, 78-76 on December 18) and the win over Kansas. The Longhorns have losses to Pitt and UConn (No. 13, 82-81 on January 8). Ohio State has two wins over Top-25 RPI teams; a 93-75 win over Florida (No. 12, November 16) and a 87-65 win over Purdue (No. 10, January 25).
That means that according to RPI ratings, Pitt has six wins over teams ranked in the Top 25, while the three teams ranked ahead of them have combined for five wins. Pitt has made a strong case to be the nation's No. 1 team this week—RPI, a hold on first-place in the Big East, and a win over a team ranked ahead of them (who had a win over a team ranked ahead of them). Despite all these factors in support of the Panthers, the players have a different take.
While the Panthers might not be the number-one team in the country right now, it doesn't sound like it's all that important of a goal. A strong showing at the Big East Tournament means pride—not just for the Pitt players, but for every player in the Big East. Pitt can still aim for being a No. 1 seed—something they also achieved two years ago. Those two things are important goals. They can downplay whether or not they deserve to be the top-ranked team right now. When it comes to getting a No.1-seed for the NCAA Tournament, there's no downplaying how much of a goal that is.
"I definitely believe it's a wide-open, everything's going to be wide-open come tournament time," senior Gilbert Brown said. "That's definitely something we're looking at. We're definitely just trying to stay focused on the task at hand so we can finish out strong."
What's the importance of that from a player standpoint?
"I think having that number-one seed definitely brings a confidence in and a swagger," Brown added. "It also brings you more focused because everyone's out to get you. Everybody's coming for us and bringing their best game. I think if we can get a number-one seed and just maintain the way we play, we'll be able to get it. I think it's only going to benefit us in the long run."
Again, none of it will matter unless Pitt takes care of business over their final six regular season games, over these next three weeks.
"It's definitely not a time to slack," Brown said. "We still have six games left in the Big East, and the Big East Tournament left before the (NCAA) Tournament itself. I think if we stay focused on these next couple of games with South Florida and St. John's, we could potentially have a number-one seed. Our mindset is focused on the next game, and that's South Florida."
Head coach Jamie Dixon has had Pitt ranked No. 1 in his tenure, just two years ago. A number-one ranking at this point of the season, but he's got his team focused on other objectives, most importantly the final six games of the regular season. Was Pitt snubbed in being the No. 1 team in the country? There's evidence to support that. It's clear that whether it's right or wrong, Pitt is focused on more important objectives than a regular season ranking.
"I hadn't even looked at (the rankings)," Dixon said. "I guess I'm not the right guy to ask. I don't spend much time looking at that. I think there usually is a team that has separated itself. There's a lot of good ones. We like what we've done so far. There's a lot more to do, and it starts Wednesday with South Florida."