This Is Pitt's Year

Come on, you can tell me. Come clean, now. It'll only hurt for a second.

You were among those who said: "No, don't shoot,'' when Pittsburgh senior Levance Fields stepped back and launched an NBA-range 3-pointer with less than a minute to play in the Panthers' Sweet Sixteen matchup with Xavier Thursday night.

Don't be afraid to admit it. I said it, too. And so did everybody else at the establishment where I watched the game. But we were all wrong. Fields put a dagger in Xavier's hope for a third Elite Eight appearance since 2004.

Instead, Pitt reached its first since 1974, but the first trip since the NCAA went to a 64-team tournament field. I remember that game, too. That was a great Panthers team that lost to a spectacular, eventual national-champion North Carolina State squad. But this Pitt team is better, and it has a real shot at it's second Final Four. That's if you're counting its 1941 trip when the event featured only eight teams.

So, it's been a long time since Elite Eight appearances nonetheless. Enjoy the run. One would think that it should happen again, but you never know. Let's just enjoy it for now.

Pitt (31-4), which tied a school record with its win total, faces Big East foe Villanova at 7:05 p.m. Saturday. Nova won the lone regular-season game, 67-57, Jan. 28 at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. The other Elite Eight game Saturday pits the Big East's Connecticut against Missouri at 4:40 p.m.

One would think that Pitt has a good chance to beat the Wildcats. The Panthers have an excellent defense and solid inside-outside offensive game. They have had some problems with Villanova, but this is the game Pitt can turn it around.

Sure, Nova can light up the scoreboard with 3-pointers, and it's why the Wildcats were so successful in the regular-season matchup. The Panthers made just 3 of 16 from 3-point range, while Villanova canned 6 of 15 (40 percent). There also was a nine-point differential at the free-throw line. Nova made 19 of 28 from the line, while Pitt hit 10 of 17.

Reggie Redding led the Wildcats with 18 points and seven rebounds, while Dante Cunningham had 15 points and five boards. Scottie Reynolds scored 10 points, while Corey Fisher and Dwayne Anderson added nine and seven, respectively. Pitt only held a 38-32 advantage in rebounding.

For Pitt, it wasn't just stopping Villanova, it couldn't keep up in scoring. Sophomore center DeJuan Blair was in foul trouble from the outset and finished with just seven points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes. Senior forward Sam Young led Pitt with 14 points, but sophomore guard Bradley Wanamaker was the second-leading scorer with 13. Fields had 11.

In this Elite Eight matchup, Young and Fields are playing much better than before. Blair needs to stay out of foul trouble and pick up his game. While he is talented and athletic, Blair has shown that he's just a sophomore, and his game still needs work. His inside play could be the difference against Nova. I think it will be, because Blair usually has bounced back after a rough game.

The other two starters are enigmas. Junior guard Jermaine Dixon's outside shot has abandoned him, and he clearly doesn't have confidence in it. He passed up a couple shots against Xavier, and that's why Fields had to take some tough ones instead. But Dixon has played pretty good defense and can be valuable in this role, as well as in Pitt's transition game.

Then, there's senior forward Tyrell Biggs. He's been useless for a while now. He'll probably still start against Nova, but Pitt coach Jamie Dixon should have a quick hook to replace Biggs with redshirt sophomore Gilbert Brown. He provides instant energy on offense and defense and really could come through. At least there's more of a chance of that happening than Biggs stepping up.

However, as long as Young, Blair and Fields have solid games, Pitt should be successful against Villanova and reach the Final Four.

And then, anything can happen. Until then, however, let's just enjoy the run.

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