What It's Going To Take

Left for dead just two weeks ago, not only have the Panthers turned their season around, they're at least in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament. A lot has to happen, but each game over this final seven-game stretch will be a big factor.

It's getting closer to that time of year—who's going to be the number-one seeds, who's getting in, who's on the bubble. Right now, it's pretty clear Pitt is trying to get in that bubble conversation. The fact they are even worth a mention at this point is pretty miraculous, considering the way this program looked just two weeks ago.

The one minimum for Pitt, would be to get to 20 wins. Currently, they're 15-9 overall, 4-7 in Big East play. With seven games left,they need to be at least 21-10, 10-8 in the Big East. 20-11 and .500 in an aveage Big East conference this year—or at least down from recent years we've seen because of lack of elite teams—is a big difference. That's because of Pitt's remaining schedule, and we'll get to that in a moment.

First, lets take a look at what some sub-20 win teams have done in recent years, and why they'd even make the tournament. Sure, certain conference winners are factored in, but we're talking at-large teams from some of the bigger conferences. Heck, if Pitt wins the Big East Tournament, what's really the fun in that? What's the suspense, right? Even if they win three in Madison Square Garden, that should be enough to get in. But, we don't want to rely on New York at this point.

Last year's East bracket didn't have one team with less than 20 wins. Last year's West bracket had a 19-win Tennessee team and a 19-win Penn State team. The Southeast bracket had Michigan State with 19 wins, a team with a similar number of NCAA Tournament appearances to Pitt and a 18-win UC Santa Barbara team that won its conference. Illinois got in with 19 wins in the Southwest bracket.

None of the teams helped their cause. Tennessee and Penn State—teams the committee thought it would do itself a favor because of school prestige—both got knocked out in the first round. Tennessee had to weather a stormy 2010-11 season, which included an impressive win at Pitt in December, but included a late-season slide. Penn State was the opposite, advancing to the Big Ten Championship game. Michigan State and UC-Santa Barbara were bounced out of the first round as well.

In 2010, Wake Forest got in with a 19-14 record, as the No. 9 seed in the East. They were the only team with less than 20 wins in that bracket. The West Regional that year—home to the No. 3 seed Pitt—didn't have anyone with less than 21 wins. The South took a 20-12 Louisville team as a No. 9 seed, and had a pair of play-in participants in Arkansas-Pine Bluff (17-15) and Winthrop (19-13). Both of those schools won their respective conference tournament.

The other bracket, the Midwest Regional, took a 19-15 Houston team that won the Conference USA tournament.

It looks slim for Pitt in that stance because there have been a total of five at-large teams with less than 20 wins to make the tournament in the last two seasons—Michigan State, Illinois, Wake Forest, Penn State, Tennessee and UCLA. Michigan State and Illinois have both made it to the Final Four in the last seven years, and both been runners-up. Tennessee made the Elite Eight the year before. UCLA has been to three Final Fours since 2006, and was a runner-up this year. Penn State had its best Big Ten Tournament run, arguably ever, rolling over Indiana, Michigan St. and Wisconsin on its way to the Big Ten Conference Championship game against Ohio State. Wake Forest is the lone exception not making at least an Elite Eight appearance within the last seven years, but they did as recently in 1996. Their ACC schedule, and the fact they had three road wins over ranked opponents (Gonzaga, North Carolina, Georgia Tech) weighed heavily in their favor that year.

There might be no myth to that madness, but if Pitt wins 19 games and nothing else, they'd be comparable to a Tennessee or a Wake Forest on this list—a name in a reputable conference, and one who has been a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament for awhile. This is all considering how long this current winning streak lasts. Who knows. Pitt could lose the final seven regular season games, and this whole scenario is just a waste of time reading about, or even thinking about.

The other factor that will play out, and still has a lot to get figured out, is the way the Big East standings will shake out. Furthermore, with Pitt set to join the ACC—the Panthers aren't likely to drum up much support from the Big East brass. Jeff Hathaway, who stepped down in August as UConn AD is chair of the selection committee, and was hired by the Big East in October. As a result of getting his post with the Big East, Hathaway is able to stay on the selection committee. Had he not, another Big East AD would have been put in his place.

It boils down to how this Big East standings race will finish out. Pitt is one of 10 teams with at least 15 total wins. That much is good, but only eight of those teams have winning records in conference play. That will all change over the last month of the season, as Pitt will have six games (USF twice, West Virginia, Louisville, Seton Hall, Connecticut) against teams ahead of them in the standings. The only opponent behind Pitt in the standings is St. John's.

Last year, the conference took 11 teams. Last year could be perceived as a disappointment, as with those 11 teams—which represented almost one-fourth of the tournament field—just two made it to the Sweet 16 (Marquette, UConn), though UConn did win it all. The year before in 2010, eight teams made it to the tournament with Syracuse making it to the Sweet 16 and West Virginia making a Final Four. The 2009 field is probably a better case, with seven Big East teams getting in, five making it to the Elite Eight and two of those teams in the Final Four.

Now, lets take a look at the standings of each of those seasons, and the teams that got in:

Pitt 28-6, 15-3
Notre Dame 27-7, 14-4
Louisville 25-10, 12-6
Syracuse 27-8, 12-6
St. John's 21-12, 12-6
West Virginia 21-12, 11-7
Cincinnati 26-9, 11-7
Georgetown 21-11, 9-9
Connecticut 21-11, 10-8
Villanova 21-12, 9-9
Marquette 22-15, 9-9

That's right, an 11th-place team with a 22-win season. That's why it shouldn't be so shocking that Marquette made it to the Sweet 16. UConn, the team's ninth-place team, swept the Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament in one of the most improbable runs. In this example, it looks good for Pitt. Still, though, of all those teams, all had a winning conference record, all had at least 21 wins. You can make a correlation to Pitt and Marquette based on record, but the top four teams of the 2011 Big East aren't quite in the same caliber of teams in the top four of this year's Big East. That's one thing Marquette had working for it, that Pitt might not this year.

If the same scenario were to fall into place, that means Pitt needs to win at least 6 of their final regular season games. If you're comfortable enough to count the Big East Tournament, then you can say Pitt has to win at least 6 of the next 8 games, and that's an even more dire situation. Lets hypothetically say that Pitt pulls it off and wins six of seven. Then, they get bounced from the first round. That would end it right there. If they win five of the final seven, they'd have to win at least two in New York—which would put them at 22-13, 9-9. That's still iffy—again referring to Marquette getting in last year, but with a much stronger top four in the conference.

Syracuse 30-5, 15-3
Pitt 25-9, 13-5
West Virginia 31-7, 13-5
Villanova 25-8, 13-5
Marquette 22-12, 11-7
Louisville 20-13, 11-7
Notre Dame 23-13, 10-8
Georgetown 23-11, 10-8

Louisville got in on reputation alone with its 20 wins, but also finished with a more respectable conference record. That's something that could favor Pitt, but the Panthers are way out of it in earning an 11-7 conference record. That is, of course, they win out their final seven games. Still, Rick Pitino didn't do the conference much service, getting bounced in the first round after getting a favor from the committee based on reputation. That kind of history is among the topics when brought up in these meetings.

Louisville 31-6, 16-2
Pitt 31-5, 15-3
UConn 31-5, 15-3
Villanova 30-8, 13-5
Marquette 25-10, 12-6
Syracuse 28-10, 11-7
West Virginia 23-12, 10-8

Things played out more according to the standings, with Marquette and West Virginia getting knocked out early. The five teams with the most overall wins advanced to the Sweet 16, then the teams who narrowly finished in third and fourth place—yet each with over 30 wins—ended up in the Final Four.

So based on the way the previous tournament fields have panned out, there's nothing here on February 8 that will guarantee Pitt a spot in the tournament. The biggest thing for Pitt, however, is going to be this next seven game stretch. It's not going to be the outcome of tonight's game. It's not going to be the outcome of Sunday's game. It's going to be all seven games, because six of those teams (South Florida twice) are teams ahead of Pitt in the standings. By the time those seven games are done, the conference standings will have a much different look—especially when you consider a team like Pitt (4-7) tied for 10th place with three other teams (Rutgers, St. John's, Seton Hall) just three games back of fifth-place Louisville (7-4). With games still remaining against St. John's, Seton Hall and Louisville, there's a lot riding for Pitt in each of those games.

For Pitt, six wins would be the minimum, especially with this remaining schedule. A loss at UConn could be forgiveable. A loss at Louisville could be forgiveable. A loss at both? Well, only if the other five games are guaranteed wins. A loss at home to West Virginia, after going down to Morgantown and winning the previous matchup, would be pretty drastic in terms of RPI. A win at South Florida followed by a loss at Seton Hall, or even vice-versa, cancel each other out. Of these final six games, the Panthers have one freebie (loss) to take. Anything more dims their chances a little more.

Also, when looking at the current Big East standings, this isn't going to be a year like 2009 where there were four 30-win teams in the standings. Yet, it's not going to be another 2011 where there were 11 teams with enough quality wins.

There's still a lot to be determined, and a lot of that will be determined for Pitt in what the Panthers do over this final seven-game stretch.

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