Where Does Pitt Go From Here?

The Pitt men's basketball team supposedly was a lock for the NCAA Tournament prior to its game against West Virginia, and that likely hasn't changed since the unranked Panthers have an RPI at 24.

However, Pittsburgh (21-9 overall, 9-8 in the Big East) clearly is reeling after a blowout loss to the Mountaineers that wasn't nearly as close as the 76-62 final score would indicate.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they were able to take a couple days off after that loss and will have had five days to get ready for the regular-season finale with DePaul (10-18, 5-11) Sunday at noon at the Petersen Events Center.

"We never got into the rhythm,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We had guys out the entire game. We have probably never had that many guys out in one half in foul trouble. ... Simply, we were outplayed. We didn't make free throws. We didn't make lay-ups. We didn't defend very well, and we got out-rebounded.

"Then we started the game by turning it over (10 in the first half, 16 overall), which is out of character for us. We came up short. It's disappointing, but we have to get ready for DePaul on Sunday. We're trying to get better. We're 21-9, but if we were 30-0 we would still being trying to get better.

"I don't think we're where we need to be, but I would never anticipate that,'' Dixon added. "I would never be satisfied. We're not satisfied with how we're playing on both sides of the floor, so we to do a better job on the defensive end, as well as the offensive end, and we're going to work very hard at it.''

Pitt senior guard Keith Benjamin believed the layoff before the DePaul game should be used for introspection by the Panthers.

"Right now, it's gut-check time,'' Benjamin said. "Everyone has to look at themselves. If we want to be champions, like we say we do, then we have to get it done. ... We just haven't played good defense the past couple of games.

"We were lucky to get out of Syracuse alive, and we were lucky to come back against Cincinnati. You can't keep doing that. It's not going to work. You have to come up with something on the defensive end, and we're not.''

Pitt junior point guard Levance Fields believed that the Panthers just weren't playing hard and weren't aggressive enough on defense.

"If a guy makes a tough shot, coach always says do it again because there aren't many times they will,'' Fields said. "Now, if a guy makes a tough shot, we put our heads down and we start giving up lay-ups. Since I've been back, we've been giving up a lot of lay-ups. We have to play better defense.

"We can still be in games if we play defense. We give up lay-up after lay-up. Because we give up so many points, we're putting ourselves in too many deep holes. ... We can still be in games if we just play good (defense).''

West Virginia (21-9, 10-7) moved ahead of Pitt into sixth place in the Big East and likely enhanced its NCAA tournament hopes with the win. A victory at St. John's Saturday should seal a bid for the Mountaineers. Pitt's seeding can be anywhere from 7 to 11, depending on its performance against DePaul and in the Big East Tournament next week.

"We've worked so hard and we've prepared so hard,'' Benjamin said. "For some reason, when game-time comes and the lights come on and we've got to get ready for 40 minutes, the focus isn't there. I don't know what it is. The guys are working really hard in practice. It's just not there when the game starts.''

Fields agreed with that assessment.

"The focus is not there,'' Fields said. "All of us are getting beat one-on-one. Right now, we don't have any mental toughness.''

And that has to change quickly.

"We don't know where (the WVU loss) leaves us,'' Benjamin said. "We have to get a win (against DePaul). That's all we know.''

But that won't mask the Panthers problems heading into March Madness.

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