No Cakewalk to a High Seed

Did you enjoy the Pitt Panther basketball team's win over lowly Virginia Tech on Wednesday? Did it give you the warm fuzzies to watch a team have its way inside and outside with an inferior opponent, inferior across the board?<br><br> Yeah? Well, good, because that's the last time this year you'll see a cakewalk (until maybe the first round of the NCAA tournament).

The Panthers enter a stretch where they won't meet the Virginia Tech's and Rutgers' of the Division 1 world any longer. They have only 3 games remaining before the Big East Tournament starts and after that they'll entertain a handful of opponents in the "Big Dance."

None of the current remaining 3 games are against superior opponents but all 3 are against teams with high hopes of a NCAA birth.

The Panthers meet Connecticut this weekend. The Huskies have their coach and swagger back. Caron Butler is only watching now, but Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafer have picked up the slack.

The Panthers then host Seton Hall for the final game at Petersen Center this season. More than Connecticut, this game poses a greater threat to the Panthers. John Allen and Andre Barrett's transition attack killed the Panthers at the Continental Airlines Arena. More importantly, the Hall is the hottest team in the Big East, racking off 7 straight wins including big wins over Notre Dame and the Panthers.

Then, in the finale, Pitt battles Villanova. ‘Nova hurt their chances for the NCAA tourney with a last-second loss to Seton Hall last night, but will be playing not only for a bye in the first round of the Big East tournament but also their NCAA lives. Did I mention that it was AT Villanova?

Don't even let me get into the Big East tournament and all the possible scenarios. Pitt could end up facing 2 of the following 3 teams: Syracuse, Connecticut, or Notre Dame. All of these will be away from the comforts of Petersen Center, and Syracuse and UConn typically have large fan bases in the NYC area. Pitt, to its disappointment, has been unable to win the big games on the road this year and every game after Senior Night will be a road contest, for all intents and purposes.

This means that all the hype we've heard about the Panthers being a mature, veteran team that can handle hostile audiences will be put to the test. The Panthers will be forced to win consistently away from The Pete, and I'm not sure they can, against Big East teams anyway.

The Panthers will in all likelihood not win the Big East Tournament. It's not in their nature, at least not this year's squad. This year's squad will be looking toward the bigger fish and will cast the first bait from a #3 seed.

That's too low, you say? Well, even if they run the table through the conference tournament, the Panthers' R.P.I will most likely still be too low for anything better than a #2 seed. Remarkably, right now most experts have them listed as a #4 seed in the tournament (based on predictions made Monday). With a win over Connecticut, they will move forward to the #3 spot and then would move all the way up to a #2 seed by winning out these last 3 games.

After that it's anyone's guess. But mine would be a loss in the finals and a #3 seed in the tournament. It's just a gut feeling, so hold me to it if you want, but I may change it after this weekend's outcome.

So, if you taped that VT game on Wednesday, watch it again and enjoy it for all its worth. The road to the Final Four starts Sunday and it's going to be a bumpy, bumpy ride.

--The Steel Apple


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