NEW YORK -- In 2008, Pitt won the Big East Conference tournament. The following day, on Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament, Hall of Fame coach and ESPN college basketball analyst Bobby Knight picked the Panthers to reach the Final Four.
It was over for Pitt less than a week later. The Panthers, as a No. 4 seed, lost an NCAA tournament second-round game to No. 5 seed Michigan State.
A year later, Pitt lost its first game in the Big East tournament after a 15-3 regular season. But the Panthers quickly put that loss behind them and had their best NCAA tournament in 35 years. They reached the Elite Eight and came tantalizingly close to making the Final Four for the first time since 1941.
The lesson is the Big East tournament is not necessarily an indicator of NCAA tournament success. Plenty of other teams know this as well. Syracuse won the Big East in 2005 and 2006 and lost its first NCAA game both years. There are countless other examples from other conference tournaments, too.
Unlike a year ago, when Pitt missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade, the Panthers have a chance to salvage their season after a disappointing loss Thursday against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.
"We're definitely still confident," freshman forward Durand Johnson said. "We came here and got a loss, and the only thing we can do is learn from it. We have to come back to practice and be more committed and more focused and try to make a run at the NCAA tournament. We can beat anyone in the country."
Pitt is 24-8 and likely will be seeded in the middle of a bracket when the NCAA tournament selection committee unveils its 68-team field Sunday. The Panthers had been one of the hottest teams in Division I entering the Big East tournament. They won 11 of 14 before the loss to Syracuse, which has them in position to earn anywhere from a No. 5 to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Panthers have plenty to iron out before their next game. Their defense, a strong suit for much of the season, allowed Syracuse to shoot 47 percent overall and 63 percent from 3-point range. Their offense, also among the most efficient in Division I all season, struggled to get quality shots and finished shooting just 35 percent against the Orange.
Syracuse jumped to a 40-27 halftime lead and hung on after a late Pitt rally. The Panthers battled back and cut the deficit to one with 30 seconds remaining.
Talib Zanna had a chance to tie the score with a free throw, but he missed. After two Syracuse free throws, Pitt was down by three, but the Panthers failed to get off a shot. Freshman guard James Robinson turned the ball over, negating one final chance to send the game to overtime.
Still, there were some building blocks in the second half. Pitt outrebounded Syracuse by 16 in the second half, held the Orange to 35 percent shooting and made some big shots down the stretch to make the score close.
"There's no question that was our team in the second half," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "That's how we play. But the problem is you've got to play the right way for two halves, and we didn't do that."
Added senior captain Tray Woodall: "In the second half, we got back to our style. We didn't get it done in the first half. I'm proud of my guys and how we fought back. We were resilient and kept fighting. I'm definitely still confident. We still have time to get better. We're definitely a team capable of making a run."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published March 16, 2013 4:00 AM