While the Steelers are out of the playoffs and the Penguins are struggling with inconsistency, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has the Panthers primed for another run at the Big East title. Only this time, it was totally unexpected.
It's not just that Pitt was young and inexperienced with one returning starter and six players with freshman eligibility competing for playing time, but there was tangible evidence that the Panthers could struggle in the Conference.
There was a close opener with Wofford (63-60), a double-overtime victory against Duquesne (67-58) and horrendous performance against New Hampshire (47-32) along with a bad loss to Indiana (74-64). However, as football season came to an end, Pitt got healthy, more experienced and hot.
"We're still going to be the same team that everyone doubted,'' Jermaine Dixon said. "Nothing has changed. It's the mindset we've had all season. No one compared us to some of the other good players and teams in the country.
"But it's something we're used to. I definitely like being the underdog, because I've been the underdog all my life. We're tougher defensively this season. We knew we had to pick it up defensively to compete in the Big East.''
The Panthers got their most-experienced returning players back in the lineup, injured senior guard Dixon as a starter and suspended redshirt junior forward Gilbert Brown as the top sub.
Sophomore Ashton Gibbs, after a summer with Coach Dixon on Team USA, already is among the Big East's best. Juniors Bradley Wanamaker and Gary McGhee have stepped up their games, and the freshmen aren't playing like they're rookies anymore.
And four big wins followed. First, Pitt beat Big East doormat DePaul, a good tuneup before a Conference road trip. The Panthers then beat No. 5 Syracuse and Cincinnati in a three-day span and won at No. 15 Connecticut Wednesday.
"There's no shutouts or 40-point wins in our Conference,'' Coach Dixon said. "You know you're going to be in tough games every night, and our guys are prepared for that.''
Now ranked 16th nationally, after a lengthy start outside the polls for the first time in Coach Dixon's tenure, Pitt faces Louisville (12-5, 3-1) today at noon and No. 11 Georgetown Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center. The Cardinals have won two straight against Pitt at the Pete.
"They've had our number because they do a good job pressuring us, which makes it difficult to get into our offense,'' center Gary McGhee said. "We pride ourselves on protecting the home court, so this is a very big game for us.''
McGhee had his best game at Pitt with eight points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in 28 minutes in the big win at UConn. Gibbs and Wanamaker tallied 19 points each to lead the Panthers' offense.
Jermaine Dixon needs to get back into the scoring column, as well as Gilbert Brown, and maybe a couple others could contribute offensively like freshmen Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor and sophomore Nasir Robinson. And the defense, which has been nearly impenetrable once again for Coach Dixon, must maintain that level as well.
"I get satisfaction out of coaching any team,'' Coach Dixon said. "This team has been interesting in that it has improved so much from the start of the year. Some guys have gotten better. Others are getting healthy. As any coach, you want to see your team improve.
"Anyone who saw us at the start of the year and now can speak to our constant improvement throughout. That has been gratifying. But we didn't lower our expectations, so I'm not surprised. Our demands were the same. Our players and staff understood that. We made that very clear from the beginning.''
And it's certainly paying off right now for Pitt.
Panther More Top Stories
ONE YEAR LATER: Canada vs. ChaneyFormer Pitt offensive coordinator Jim Chaney bolted back to the SEC when he accepted the open offensive coordinator job at Georgia this past offseason, leaving Pitt coach Pat…
Panther MoreYesterday at 1:36 PM
Pat Narduzzi listed as "hot commodity" coachScout.com gives you its mid-season list of coaches who could take head coaching positions elsewhere after 2016. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is listed among college football's hottest…
ScoutYesterday at 10:00 AM
Four-star Thompson set to visit PittFour-star Pitt commit Aaron Thompson slated to check out Pitt's campus.
Panther MoreYesterday at 8:40 AM
Kentucky WR commit to visit PittWith Kentucky coach Mark Stoops appearing on many analysts' "hot seats," the Pitt coaching staff continues its pursuit of Kentucky commits. Wide receiver Joshua Ali is one such…
Scout FootballMonday at 11:33 AM
Pitt gets in early on 6-3, 2018 receiverThe Panthers staff has gotten in early on a 6-3 wide receiver from Brooklyn.
Scout FootballMonday at 5:55 AM