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As the final weeks of the regular season wind to a close, the Pittsburgh Panther basketball team finds itself in familiar territory: a top 10 ranking, the probability of a Big East-West Division regular season championship, a bye in the Big East Tournament, and a high seed in the NCAA tournament.<br><br> This sounds eerily like last season. The Panthers will head into the conference tournament with most likely a bye and a chance to win their first automatic birth to the "Dance".

But, we all know they won't. Or at least they won't when they should.

This is a team that has looked toward the future all year. Julius Page said so:

"Right now, I think we have to search for what we're really playing for," Page said. "I think we find ourselves playing for rankings, and for what our record is going to be down the road, instead of playing one game at a time and handling business. ¼ Last year, we didn't (look ahead). We enjoyed winning and going on the road and having close games and winning close games."

"Now, we think we're a lock for a tournament and we're looking ahead like we're just comfortable being here."

They've been looking at the rankings. Every time they've found themselves with the chance to go to #1 in the polls, they've had 3 days to think about it. After that, they've tanked their chances, once to Georgia and once to Syracuse.

Look, we all knew they'd hit a rough stretch. Every team does. Duke had lost 2 - 3 before beating a stronger, better Maryland team last night. Arizona has their share of bad losses, including one to Stanford at home.

But, these teams and coaches have been through all the ups and downs of high expectations for years. This Pitt organization will achieve only its 4th Top 25 finish in 15 years at the conclusion of this season. It's hard not to expect even a veteran team such as the Panthers to watch the rankings more closely than, say, a Kentucky or an Oklahoma.

This is where coaching comes into play and where Ben Howland's abilities have been scrutinized at center stage these past 6 games:

  • Pitt leads Syracuse at the Dome by double-digits but seems intent on firing 3-point bricks throughout the second half.
  • Ontario Lett and Chevon Troutman suffer from early ongoing foul trouble against Georgetown at the Petersen Center, but Torree Morris sees rather insignificant time on the bench. The Panthers barely escape with a 1-point win.
Indeed, one of the Panthers weaknesses is a tentative approach inside offensively when the fouls start to add up. This means the Panthers start throwing up 3 - point shots at an alarming rate, while mold grows inside the paint. In fact, in all 4 of the Panthers losses this season, they have thrown up at least 20 trey attempts.

But, all of this could be moot considering the ebb and flow of a regular season.

These examples and others should not factor into the ultimate grade of Ben Howland and his Panthers this season. Rather, this team's ability to appear in at least the Elite Eight or even the Final Four or (gasp!) the National Championship will be the true test.

This team, while obviously looking toward late March, will find that once it gets there, they will undoubtedly have to produce. If Howland is smart he'll give them a brief history of the only other time the Panthers were expected to perform at such a high level.

Back during the 1986-87 season, the Panthers surged to a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament. They suffered an eventual loss to #6 Oklahoma in the second round, but the stage was set for the senior seasons of All-American Charles Smith and Demetrius Gore and the junior season of rebound champ Jerome Lane.

They won the Big East Conference regular season championship that following season with Smith and Lane and a late season win at Syracuse 73-72, but everyone could feel that this team suffered the mental lapses of looking ahead toward March when they were swept by Seton Hall.

During the Big East tournament, the Panthers fell in the quarterfinals to a supremely under-matched Villanova team, but we were told not to worry, the important tournament was still to come.

Well, we all know what happened. Vanderbilt, a #7 seed, met the #2 seeded Pitt. After a seesaw game, Pitt held a 3-point lead in the final seconds. When told not to foul, the Panthers allowed Vandy to attempt a 3-pointer with time expiring. The 3 foul shot rule had yet to take effect so all Darrell Porter had to do was be aggressive defending the 3-point attempt, but he held back and the ball hit paydirt.

In the overtime, Charles Smith fouled out and, without their leader, the Panthers fell 80 - 74.

Even last year, the Panthers must have been dreaming of Final Four possibilities when Indiana upset Duke minutes before the Panthers took the court against Kent State.

The Panthers looked ahead and Kent State walked away with the win.

The Panthers will undoubtedly continue to look ahead. They aren't professionals and they are human. But, unless they are careful and Howland closes the peephole to the future, looking ahead will turn into looking back at a season that might have been.

--The Steel Apple


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