The talk outside the Pitt locker room Sunday centered around "staying positive" and "getting back to playing Pitt basketball."
For a team that finished the first half of the Big East Conference schedule in a tie for fourth place with a 6-3 record, the Panthers are not exactly feeling comfortable with their positioning within the league. And that makes perfect sense considering the team's fortunes of late.
After starting the Big East schedule with five consecutive victories the Panthers have dropped three of their past four. Making matters more difficult, the schedule gets more daunting in the next few weeks with the Panthers facing games against three teams ranked in the top 10 of the national polls in the next 20 days.
Three of the next five Big East games are against top-10 teams. The Panthers, who fell to No. 22 in The Associated Press poll Monday, begin the stretch with a game at No. 6 West Virginia Wednesday in Morgantown. The Mountaineers pay a visit to Pitt nine days later and then No. 2 Villanova comes to town Feb. 21. Sandwiched in between are games against Seton Hall, which beat Pitt Jan. 24, and a visit to Marquette, where the Panthers have failed to win since the Golden Eagles joined the Big East in 2005.
"You have to stay positive," Pitt junior Gilbert Brown said after the Panthers lost Sunday at South Florida, 70-61. "There is so much more of the season left. We have nine more [Big East games] left. We have to battle through this. We have to get a lot more wins. We have to think about what is in the long run for us. We still want to finish on top of the Big East so we get good seeding for the [conference] tournament and get to the NCAAs. That's our goal."
Nine days ago making the NCAA tournament appeared to be a lock. On Jan. 24, the Panthers were 5-1 heading into a game at Seton Hall. But the Panthers lost a 64-61 decision to the Pirates, a team that resides in a tie for 12th place in the conference standings with a 3-5 league mark. After beating St. John's to improve to 6-2, the Panthers lost to South Florida, which is in a four-way tie for eighth place with a 4-5 record.
Pitt is still in good shape for a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Panthers probably only need to win four more conference games to secure a berth in the 65-team NCAA field. A 10-8 record in the Big East, which is considered the best conference in Division I this season, likely would be enough to do that.
Anything less and the Panthers might be leaving their fate in the hands of the NCAA selection committee.
Pitt's losing ways are hard to figure considering the Panthers handed No. 3 Syracuse its only loss of the season one month ago today. The Panthers followed that victory up with two more impressive road victories at Cincinnati and Connecticut.
But things started to go sour shortly after the win against the Huskies. The Panthers needed a miracle comeback to beat Louisville at Petersen Events Center. They erased a five-point deficit in the final minute and won in overtime. After that narrow escape they lost to Georgetown, their first home loss in 23 months.
A myriad of things are contributing to the slump. When the Panthers won their first five Big East games in a row they averaged 74 points per game and only allowed 65.8 points per game. In the past four games the Panthers are averaging only 62.7 points per game while allowing 65.2 per contest.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has said that the defense has never been up to his standard and that the Panthers won some of those early games because the offense bailed them out. That is not happening any longer.
The offense's problems start with sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs, Pitt's leading scorer. He averaged 20 points and shot 51 percent from the field (28 for 55) in the first five games. In the past four he is averaging 14 per game while shooting 30 percent (16 for 55) from the field.
"He's just going to have to be patient and let things come to him and we're going to have execute better to get him shots," Dixon said. "I think he's taking pretty good shots. He needs to get to the free-throw line more. Those are things that get you out of slumps. It's good to get those free throws and get a feel of the ball going through the basket."
Gibbs is only part of the problems on offense. The Panthers have received little production from the center position for most of the season and have received inconsistent production from the power forward spot that is shared by Nasir Robinson and Gilbert Brown. Brown has been the only reserve to provide any scoring punch of late. The other reserves -- Travon Woodall, Dante Taylor and J.J. Richardson -- have contributed eight points in the past four games.
When the Panthers travel to West Virginia they will be looking to avoid a fourth loss in their past five games. That has not happened since the 2000-01 season, Ben Howland's second season as head coach.
"We have to get back to playing Pitt basketball," junior guard Brad Wanamaker said.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published February 2, 2010 5:00 AM