Blowing an undefeated season at home on senior night is almost incomprehensible.
Another less-than-stellar finish in the regular conference schedule is a major bone of contention for the Dawg - and I'm sure all Panther fans- this last week. Losing two very winnable games with so much on the line is a VERY bitter bone to chew on. And more shocking, it appears that the preseason prediction of finishing seventh in the conference this year wasn't as far off as it appeared a week ago. That was a fact seemingly impossible going into the last few weeks of the regular season.
Unfortunately, in this past week the Pitt Panthers have certainly NOT done their part in securing the best seed possible in both upcoming tournaments, not by a long stretch.
Nevertheless the Panthers deserve some love for a season many couldn't have imagined before it started back in November. Although the Dawg gave the Panthers a better than average chance of making it back to the NCAA tournament for a fifth season in a row, I also thought winning twenty games would be a major battle all season. Yes, the Panthers should have finished on a much better note. But they are a young team; one that just might have rested on their laurels a little after winning their twentieth game and becoming a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament.
There is one main reason that must not be forgotten for why they did start off so well with so many inexperienced players on the roster: toughness. They exuded it. Especially early in the season when so many of those "cupcakes" on the schedule made games at the Pete a lot closer than they should have been. The young players played with poise as they seemingly pulled out win after win after win. These Panthers were tough, just like they have been for half a decade.
And in my mind no one represents the spirit of that toughness over the last five years better than the Panther who was honored Friday night BEFORE Pitt lost its final game of the regular season against the Seton Hall Pirates. Everyone here knows who I'm talking about: Senior guard, Carl Krauser.
I know many fans reading this right now are not very happy with Mr. Krauser. It probably has something to do with his woeful shooting performances against West Virginia on Monday night and again Friday night. His poor performances have almost single-handedly doomed the Panthers to a first round game in the Big East tournament. This unfortunate turn of events doesn't change one thing about Carl Krauser: he is one of the greatest athletes to ever play at the University of Pittsburgh.
Krauser epitomizes that toughness we all cherish about Pitt and its sports teams. So tough nothing gets him down, and nothing ever deflates his sense of pride or competition. A lot has been made about how Pitt basketball very rarely loses. And even in one of those infrequent losses, they never get beat by more than a handful of points. That started before this season with the likes of Ricardo Greer, Brandin Knight, Julius Page, Jaron Brown, Chevon Troutman, and of course now continues this season mainly because of Carl Krauser.
For those who think this team would be better without Krauser, remember this: he is the one passing on the torch to the next generation. Not one Panther on this year's roster played for Pitt when they won their only Big East tournament. That is except for CK. As talented as this year's team was, without Krauser's influence they would have had to find that toughness on their own. And twenty wins might have been impossible by the time they did find it.
That toughness still remains even after the bitter disappointment of losing two crucial games this week. Unfortunately for the Panthers, if they had won both of those games, they would be looking at a very manageable schedule in the Big East Tournament and a probable No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Now the Panthers are staring at a very difficult road at Madison Square Garden next week. They have to play a potentially dangerous first round on Wednesday night, probably against Louisville, Rutgers, or Notre Dame. Win that game and the Panthers will have to play a well rested West Virginia or Georgetown team in the next round. If they are lucky enough to survive that match up, either Villanova or Connecticut will be waiting for them in the semifinals.
Not an impossible feat, but highly improbable. If Pitt can win its first round game and upset the higher seed in the second round, they will have secured a #4 seed in the tournament and a possible #3 depending on how they play against Nova or UCONN in the semifinals. Anything less and the Panthers are leaving too much up to the committee. Not finishing with an undefeated home record really diminishes the one thing Pitt could point to on its tournament resume: a Top Ten RPI ranking. The tournament selection committee has not been kind to Panther teams with more impressive resumes in the past, so there's no guarantee they will be any nicer this year.
I'll be honest; the Dawg had no agenda for this week's column. There has been so much going on recently- most of it is so timely that it needs to be addressed immediately. Last week's speed bump back into football was just an aberration. It's time for the Dawg and all Panther fans to concentrate on what's important now.
The Dawg had an epiphany during the last two weeks as Pitt and Penn State fans battled it out on the message boards. That revelation was that the last five years has been a special time in the history of Pitt athletics. Being a Pitt fan during that time has afforded us all a luxury very few other college fans have: top ranked (for the most part) teams in BOTH basketball and football.
"Say what?" some of you must be thinking. I know this past week has been a major disappointment. Add that with last year's collapse down the stretch on the hardwood, and Wannstedt's tough first season, and it seems like things have been rough for the Panther's since that blowout loss in the Fiesta Bowl.
But Pitt basketball still has won at least 20 games for five straight seasons. The early parts of the schedule have been too easy, definitely way too easy, but that's the way it is in college basketball these days. All of the best teams pad their records with extremely easy early season schedules…you don't have to look further than UCONN for an example.
What Pitt has to do now is to learn how to take the "next step" and win when it matters the most, down the stretch in the conference and national conference tournaments. This is where Pitt truly disappointed last season, and where the Panthers can erase the sting of another late slump in conference play this season. No Panther fan will be sulking about losing to Seton Hall if Pitt is battling Villanova to the wire for a chance to play in the finals of the conference tournament.
So much has gone on in the past ten days since the Dawg last wrote; it's almost unbelievable how fast time flies as the Big East and NCAA tournaments get closer and closer. The end of February leading up to the full month of March is one of the most exciting parts of the year (along with bowl season) for all college sports fans. Everything matters now, every game, every possession, as teams jockey for position in their respective conference tournaments, and more importantly…the Big Dance.
Carl Krauser reflected the mood of the team last night when commenting on the disappointment of finishing the season with its first loss at home. But he also went on to discuss the importance of putting that disappointment behind them and moving on. He's right; it's a new season with tournament play, but also one with less room for error. The Dawg hopes the Panthers will adopt the same sense of urgency displayed by their leader now that that margin for error is even smaller than before…or this season could end up a lot like last year.
And no one wants that…
In the Dawg House: There will be no one in the Dawg House this week. I refuse to call out anyone associated with the University of Pittsburgh; unless they really do something dumb (i.e. Bob Smizik.) I also don't feel that bad leaving the folks from Fight on State there for one more week either. I don't think any other Panther fan would object to that.
But I do need to get something off my chest.
Jamie Dixon has done a fabulous job coaching the team this year, despite another sub par finish to the regular season. He also deserves a lot of credit for the team's success the last three years he's bee the head coach. And he certainly deserves to have a contract that reflects the fact the he is one of the better coaches in the Big East.
Maybe it's just a pet peeve of mine, but I'm dog tired of reading about him deflecting blame from himself after a loss. He always seems to point to poor play and execution and never takes any personal responsibility for why the team wasn't able to win the game.
Last night was another perfect example. No statements about how he should have had the players better prepared for the game or about maybe mishandling the rotation and playing some of the struggling players too long. There was none of that. Instead, Dixon offered another cluster of comments about how he had expected the team to play much better. Again, the head coach's post game comments suggest that the fault lay with the players and not him.
Now I understand that Dixon was not the primary reason for last night's loss. But the coach cannot continue to exonerate himself at the sake of his players. Even if he can't find fault in his performance, he should shield his players publicly from all the blame. He deserves credit for always showing confidence in his players after bad games, as he has in public reassurances to Carl Krauser and Aaron Gray after tough losses. But he also should be honest to the media when assessing his contribution to each difficult defeat.
I would even go as far as to wonder if these late season collapses are a product of the head coach's penchant for blaming losses on the play of his team. Losing begets losing, and the players know this. Being blamed for every loss down the stretch can be deflating to a young man's psyche. I would suggest Dixon consider shielding his players from that by taking some of the blame in public.
Dixon has been way too good this year to be in the Dawg House for a pet peeve. But if he wants to avoid being an occupant in it in the future, he needs to start thinking about taking some of the heat himself after losses. That's what every great coach learns to do sometime in their career.
In the Dawg House: March 4, 2006 This page © Copyright 2006, Steve Gephart.