Panthers look to return to March Madness

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Only three of 346 teams in NCAA Division I finished last season with a postseason victory. Pitt was one of the lucky few, but the Panthers didn't spend the offseason celebrating their College Basketball Invitational championship.

The truth is, they would love to forget it. The players didn't even know the tournament existed before they were invited to participate, and they took no solace in winning it.

The Panthers are determined to avoid another obscure postseason tournament and return to the one that matters in March. After seven long months, they can finally turn the page on their disappointing 2011-12 season tonight when they play host to Mount St. Mary's in the season opener at the Petersen Events Center.

The Panthers missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years after injuries and some uncharacteristic play sabotaged last season. They were 22-17 and finished 5-13 in Big East play for their worst finish in conference since 1998-99.

That season ended the five-year tenure of Ralph Willard and ushered in the new era of Pitt basketball when Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon were hired. From '01 until last season, the Panthers were the model of consistency in the Big East. They were the only team to make the NCAA tournament every season in that span and won Big East regular-season and tournament championships.

"We took a lot of pride in that," junior forward Lamar Patterson said. "It's not an easy thing to do. We have to give credit to the guys before us -- Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser, Levance Fields, Sam Young and all those guys. They put so much work into building this program to make it what it is. For us to have a season like that, we feel like we let a lot of people down. It's behind us now. We're going to grow from it and get back to where this program was."

Patterson believes this team is capable of doing that. The Panthers have a solid returning cast, and Dixon added a couple of talented freshmen who will begin the season as starters -- point guard James Robinson and center Steven Adams.

"I feel like we're more together this year," Patterson said. "We have a low-post presence and we have that experience. We have that taste in our mouths with us being considered a loser. Having that stick with you, you never want to go back to that feeling."

In a preseason poll of Big East coaches, the Panthers were picked to finish sixth. Considering the Panthers finished 12th last season, the ranking is a credit to Dixon and the program he has built. Still, it will serve as motivation.

"I think we always come out with motivation, hoping to prove we're better than what people think," Dixon said. "Generally, we've done that in the past if you look at it. It's not something we have to point out too much, but we talked about it briefly early in the year. We don't talk about it too much as the season progresses. It's a starting point. It's where people see us, but we always believe we can be as good as we want to be."

Last season, the Panthers had a target on their chests. They were the defending regular-season champions and had the Big East preseason player of the year in Ashton Gibbs. Big things were expected.

Then bad things happened.

Now, the Panthers have their sights set on others while trying to restore the tradition that they worked so hard to build.

"I think everyone in the country has something to prove," senior point guard Tray Woodall said.

"A lot of [media outlets] come out with preseason rankings. We're all out to prove everyone wrong. Everyone wants to exceed expectations and play beyond what everyone is thinking."

Added senior center Dante Taylor: "I think we have something show to the people and the fans. It's a whole different year. We just want to play our best, play good for our fans and give them what they deserve."


Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published November 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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