Panthers Defeat Stubborn Raiders

Let's get one thing straight. The University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team's 79-58 win against Wright State was solid, but Pitt was supposed to beat the Raiders in the NCAA first-round matchup late Thursday night at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y.

And now that Duke has made an early exit, two tourney wins and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen is a must. Anything less would be a huge disappointment. After that, any wins are gravy for the Panthers (28-7), but they must win twice to make the West Regional in San Jose, Calif. next week.

"We have a lot to prove, that's for sure,'' Pitt junior forward Mike Cook said. "We have to go out and prove that we can win the big games, so this is a big opportunity for us.''

Pitt's 7-foot senior center Aaron Gray, who might have cost himself a lot of money in the NBA next year after his disappearing act in the final two Big East Tournament games, didn't recoup any against Wright State. He should have dominated, with a decided height advantage, but he was a non-factor on offense. Gray had a decent rebounding game, but he should have cleaned up. He needs to be a difference-maker against VCU.

That said, the Panthers got off to a hot start against Wright State with a 13-0 lead and eventually regained that advantage and more. It seemed like Ronald Ramon finally got his strong back, and Pitt's defense was extremely tough from the outset. If the Panthers continue to play this tight defense in every other NCAA game, and shoot as well as they did -- especially in the second half against Wright State -- they will be difficult to beat.

Pitt certainly won't have an easy game against Virginia Commonwealth (28-6), which has an athletic lineup. The Rams befuddled Duke on defense and took it to the Blue Devils on every opportunity at the offensive end as well. The Panthers won't have the prestige they would have gotten from beating Duke, but a second NCAA win would be huge nonetheless.

Let's not forget that Pitt was a preseason No. 4 pick and actually was ranked second nationally to UCLA early this season, so it was supposed to be successful. Now, nobody is picking the Panthers to do too much. That's why they need to go out and dominate Virginia Commonwealth the way that they did against Wright State. They can do that by playing for the team, passing off to a player with a more open shot and helping out on defense, instead of firing up 3-pointers whenever a chance arises and being lazy on defense.

"I think we've won some big games this year, but we need to prove ourselves to get some respect,'' Pitt senior forward Levon Kendall said. "This is a great opportunity for us, and we can go a long way toward earning that if we keep winning. And we can do it if we continue to play well as a team.''

Pitt's basketball program certainly regained respectability by the time Jamie Dixon took over as the head coach, and it has moved toward the upper echelon in the NCAA in his four seasons. Six Big East Tournament final games in the past seven seasons, one Big East title, six straight NCAA appearances and three Sweet Sixteens will do that for a program. But to take it to another level, the Panthers must get past Virginia Commonwealth.

They will be favored to do that, just like they were against Wright State, but Pitt needs to win this game to erase the disappointment that has spotted its season.

And once the Panthers get into the Sweet Sixteen any more wins would be icing on the cake.

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