Certainly, Pittsburgh (19-6 overall, 7-5 in the Big East), should make the NCAA Tournament on its No. 19 RPI ranking alone. Its seeding depends on how strong it finishes the regular season and performs in the Conference tournament. Early bracketology has the Panthers as a No. 7 seed playing No. 10 Mississippi in Little Rock, Ark. in the opening round.
"The tournament committee's going to take into account what Pitt did without Levance Fields and Mike Cook,'' noted bracketologist Joe Lunardi said. "But now that Fields is back, we'll see where Pitt goes from here.''
In Fields' return, the Panthers and the junior point guard struggled in a lopsided loss at Marquette. Fields had missed 12 games since he broke a bone in his left foot in a loss at Dayton, and Pitt went 8-4 in games that followed. That stretch included a win and loss to Villanova, losses at Cincinnati and Rutgers at home, home wins against Georgetown and West Virginia and a loss at Connecticut.
Duquesne and Oklahoma State were Pitt's only teams with a top-100 RPI rating in its non-conference schedule early on, and Washington is at 107. But then the Panthers gave No. 3 Duke its only its only loss until a defeat to Wake Forest Sunday. Dayton is 24th. Georgetown has an RPI rating of eight.
Pitt has a tough road ahead at No. 25 Notre Dame Thursday and at home to No. 15 Louisville Sunday at noon at the Petersen Events Center. Marquette is rated 16th in the latest numbers.
"We've got to forget about this one (at Marquette), as hard as that is,'' Fields said. "We've got to let this one go and get ready for Notre Dame.''
The Panthers will have had five days to prepare for Notre Dame (18-5, 8-3) Thursday at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind.
"Levance has been back with us for only a short period of time,'' junior forward Sam Young said. "We're still getting used to him being back. Once he's back at full strength, he's going to be a big piece to our puzzle.''
Pitt is 4-4 in its past eight games, going 2-5 on the road since beating Duke on a neutral court, and is losing momentum heading into the post-season. The Panthers are tied with Cincinnati (12-12, 7-5) for sixth place in the Big East.
Barring a late-season surge, Pitt will finish out of the top four in the conference for just the second time in the past seven seasons.
"We've got to get the whole group together and practice,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "That's what we need to do. We need to get after it and we need to practice. The practice time is something we need to take advantage of. We need to get better, because that game was not indicative of our team.''
Fields was cleared by doctors to begin practicing with the team Feb. 7. But he only went through two full practices before the Marquette game. Dixon said the time between games this week will be beneficial for Fields and the rest of the team as they try to readjust the team chemistry in the wake of Fields' return.
"Hopefully, by the Notre Dame game, we're back to normal,'' Fields said. "I practiced about four or five days before this. It is different because I wasn't playing. It's tough. With me coming back, we have nine players again. We can do more live-contact drills that coach likes to do.
"We'll be looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to playing as much as possible and playing on this foot. We'll definitely have some tough practices. We just have to forget about this one and get ready for Notre Dame.''
Notre Dame has the third-longest home winning streak in the nation at 34 games. The Fighting Irish already have beaten West Virginia, Connecticut and Marquette, among others, at the Joyce Center this season.
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