Hoyas Dominate Panthers

An entire nation was waiting for it to lose, and the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team complied with a 65-42 decision to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament title game Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

But that doesn't mean that the Panthers (27-7) are failures. Sure, 7-foot senior center Aaron Gray was a non-factor for the second straight game, for sure a disappointment, but Pitt is still the most successful Big East program in the past seven seasons with six championship game appearances and one title in 2003.

That latter number should be higher, but a lot of teams would like to be in Pitt's position. Georgetown, on the other hand, appears to be a national-championship contender. The Panthers and Hoyas should get No. 2 seeds when the NCAA bracket is announced Sunday night, but Pitt likely will get a third seed despite a No. 6 RPI rating. And that could rise due to wins by Georgetown, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in their respective conference tournaments even though the Panthers lost.

How, then, does Pitt take that next step. The first still would be to make a longer than expected run in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers should get a favorable opening match-up and need to be reenergized for the Big Dance. Gray, with one measly field goal and a second straight weak performance, must get his act together. It all starts with him, no matter what anybody else would like to believe. Gray must be effective inside for Pitt to shoot well from the outside.

Sure, several other players can step up and play well like senior forward Antonio Graves did against Louisville, but sophomore point guard Levance Fields and junior guard Ronald Ramon have not been shooting well at all for quite a while. They must find their stroke again for Pitt to get past the Sweet Sixteen or even make it that far, for that matter, but the Panthers must have an inside game -- i.e. Gray -- for them to have a chance.

Role players like junior Mike Cook, senior Levon Kendall and sophomore Sam Young can also help Pitt's inside game. The trio of forwards played well at times in the tournament, but there weren't enough good things from either or the group to make much of a difference. They can be a lot better.

Also, players like sophomore Terrell Biggs and junior Keith Benjamin basically have been invisible. If Pitt's nine-man rotation is going to be effective, everybody needs to contribute. Either that or Coach Jamie Dixon needs to shorten the bench. That probably won't happen, although Biggs and Benjamin have had their minutes cut considerably, but the head coach can't be blamed if no one makes an outside shot, hits a free throw or plays defense. And Pitt didn't perform too well in any area against Georgetown.

The good thing is that the Hoyas are very good. They have a dominant big man in Roy Hibbert and an athletic, high-scoring forward in Jeff Green, as well as an excellent supporting cast, that could take the Hoyas to the NCAA Final Four. That probably won't happen, but it could.

Pitt, on the other hand, will be fortunate to win two games. Sure, the Panthers have a shot at the Elite Eight, but don't hold your breath. A lot has to go its way for Pitt to advance that far.

The good news is that while this team loses starters Gray, Graves and Kendall, six players with experience -- along with redshirt freshmen Austin Wallace (6-9) and Gilbert Brown (6-6) -- immediately make the Panthers more athletic, albeit a bit smaller, than this year's squad. And a talented incoming recruiting class certainly won't hurt, either.

So, don't write Pitt off just yet this season. With a favorable seed and match-ups, the Panthers could win at least two NCAA games. And when they lose, which they most certainly will since they aren't likely to win the NCAA title, don't fret. The future is quite bright for the program at least for several years to come.

Even if it is just a little dim right now after a disheartening loss to Georgetown.

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