Panthers Draw Wright State

PITTSBURGH -- A difficult non-conference schedule and high RPI ranking paid off with a No. 3 seed for the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team as it made a sixth straight NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers (27-7), runners-up from the Big East, are in the West Region and face Wright State (23-9), the Horizon Conference champion from Dayton, Ohio, Thursday at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the West, while UCLA with former Pitt coach Ben Howland is No. 2.

If Pitt gets past the 14th-seeded Raiders, it would meet the winner between sixth-seeded Duke and No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth Saturday. If the Panthers and UCLA advance to the Sweet 16 next week, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon would get to match wits against his former mentor Howland.

"Obviously, people are going to look at those things, but we're going to focus on Wright State,'' Dixon said. "So, we're looking forward to playing them. I know what people are going to talk about, and I'm very happy to play them in the first round.''

Dixon added that he believed the Panthers could have been a No. 2 seed, considering they finished with a No. 5 RPI, a strength of schedule that was higher than most teams and more road games than many as well. So, Pitt could have been either a two or three, basing that on its record and highest RPI ranking in history.

"But you can't be disappointed at being a No. 3,'' Dixon said. "There's 330 teams that wish they had a three, so that's not the right way to look at things. But for what we did, a number of factors could have put us at a No. 2 seed. So, we had a very good year, with the postseason tournament, as well as the non-conference and conference season."

Dixon was a little surprised that the Big East only got six teams in the NCAA Tournament. He believed that Syracuse would make it again this season, but since the Orange usually don't play any road games or a difficult non-conference schedule that played against them. West Virginia and Providence were other Big East bubble teams that didn't make it.

The Panthers are among just 12 teams and are the only Big East team to make six straight NCAA tourneys since Connecticut and Syracuse did not make it this year. Arizona, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Southern Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin are the other teams.

"I was surprised that Syracuse didn't make it, and I thought West Virginia had a chance, too,'' Pitt senior center Aaron Gray said. "But you can't worry about that. We're very proud of what we've accomplished at Pitt, making it in all four seasons that Jamie has been the head coach, and going for the sixth straight year. That says a lot about this program.''

The Panthers were unsuccessful in their bid for a second Big East Tournament title with a horrendous overall performance against Georgetown, but senior Levon Kendall believed that the team played pretty well overall the past week at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

"Sure, we had a real rough game against Georgetown,'' Kendall said. "But I think the way we played against Marquette in the opening round and against Louisville, the way we came back to win that game, says a lot about us. Now, we have to put that game behind us and move on to Wright State.''

Antonio Graves, the other senior starter for Pitt, believed the sky was the limit for this team despite how poorly it played against the Hoyas.

"Really, if we don't go to the Final Four, I'll be very disappointed,'' Graves said. "The talent that we have here, the senior leadership and our younger guys, we have the type of team that can go a long way in this tournament. I really believe we can go all the way.''

But Pitt's first order of business is a game with Wright State. The tip-off time has not yet been determined.

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