The simple answer is the NCAA Tournament, of course, the same way Pittsburgh did last year and still reached the Elite Eight despite losing its opening quarterfinal matchup at the Big East Tournament.
The two teams are much different, however. This year's Panthers are not as experienced or talented and will not get a No. 1 seed. More likely, Pitt will be a four. Maybe a three, but that's unlikely. The big wins and tough losses probably cancel each other.
What's so puzzling about this team is the inconsistency. It appears, at times, that Jermaine Dixon and Bradley Wanamaker are the only players interested in taking shots. For Ashton Gibbs to get shut down to the extent where he gets just four shots in unacceptable. And Gilbert Brown, what an enigma.
I wouldn't bet on this team making an extended run in the NCAA Tournament, but I also wouldn't be surprised, either. Pitt plays solid defense and usually keeps games close. With a chance to win every game, the Panthers have come out on the positive side way more often than not.
That's what is so puzzling about the Notre Dame game. Pitt's only lead was 2-0, but it certainly had a chance to win until the final buzzer sounded. Panthers coach Jamie Dixon probably said it best.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in the loss,'' Dixon said. "It's a close game that came down to the last possessions. And we just didn't get it done. They seemed to make shots at the end of the clock and they executed well. And we need to do a better job. ... We'll get better for it, I think.
"I think we have a couple of days to prepare. We'll get ready and find out who we play Sunday. That's why I told the guys afterward that this is disappointing. But as we know, we need to be ready for (the NCAA Tournament). And that's the most important thing right now.''
The Panthers played better defense in the second half, as Notre Dame shot 38.5 percent from the field and made just 1 of 3 from 3-point range. Unfortunately for Pitt, that followed a half where the Irish made 61.9 percent of their shots, including 5-for-10 shooting on 3-pointers.
Pitt's shooting was average to start and got progressively worse at 45.8 percent in the first half, but 30 percent (6-for-20) in the second half. And on 3-pointers, forget about it. The Panthers were just 2-for-10 with sophomore Nasir Robinson and Wanamaker making one each. Gibbs missed his lone attempt, while Dixon and Brown each were 0-for-3.
"At the end of the day, we've just got to shoot better,'' Coach Dixon said. "We've got to play better, and we had plenty of opportunities to take the lead. But we just couldn't get over that hump.
"So, I'm very proud of how our guys played. I thought we really worked hard. We were really focused and came out and did some very good things, but just came up short.''
Dixon has talked all season about how this team likes to practice. Well, it's going to get quite a few workouts in before the next game. The Panthers should be healthy and ready to go. How far is anybody's guess.
A Sweet Sixteen isn't out of the question, but a 1-1 NCAA Tournament mark could easily happen as well.
There's no question that Dixon is an excellent coach. No question, because his record speaks for itself. But to accomplish that with the players he recruited in the past is just amazing. Clearly, the Panthers should be successful in any league for as long as Dixon remains at Pitt.
How far they continue go in the NCAA Tournament, however, is directly correlated to how well he recruits in the future. This year's redshirts, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, as well as incoming recruits Isaiah Epps, J.J. Moore and Cameron Wright and even John Johnson, to a certain extent, are better athletes than the majority of Pitt's current rotation.
Dante Taylor has three seasons remaining, while Gibbs and Robinson will have two each. All three will be better, while Taylor, Patterson and Zanna should be significantly stronger, which is a necessity.
So, while the recent accomplishments should not be overlooked, the future appears to be extremely bright for Pitt.
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