Small margin of error in NCAA tournament for Pitt Panthers

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Pitt has sent better teams to the NCAA tournament, many of them in the past decade. The Panthers were a No. 1 seed in 2009 and 2011, a No. 2 seed in 2003 and a No. 3 seed in 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2010. None of those teams were able to reach the Final Four.

The Panthers begin their journey toward that elusive Final Four today as a No. 8 seed in a matchup against No. 9 seed Wichita State in the West Region. Recent NCAA tournament history suggests that's not a bad place to be.

In the past five years, 15 teams seeded eighth or lower have advanced to the Sweet 16. Three of those teams reached the Elite Eight, two reached the Final Four and one made it to the NCAA championship.

Pitt had a hand in creating that history. In 2011, the Panthers were a No. 1 seed and lost to No. 8 seed Butler in the Round of 32. Butler went on to reach the national championship before falling to Connecticut. That season, VCU, as a No. 11 seed, reached the Final Four.

"It's the NCAA tournament, anything can happen," Pitt junior Lamar Patterson said. "It's getting hot at the right time."

One difference between being a higher seed and lower seed is the margin for error in the first game. It's never easy advancing as a lower seed.

It's a footnote to history, but people forget Butler needed a tip-in at the buzzer to get past No. 9 seed Old Dominion before upsetting the top-seeded Panthers two years ago.

In 2008, No. 10 seed Davidson made it to the Elite Eight before losing to top-seeded Kansas by two. In the first two rounds, Davidson had to win close games against Gonzaga and Georgetown.

Jason Richards, a member of Jamie Dixon's staff for the past three seasons, was the point guard for Davidson that season.

"We were down big in all of those games," Richards said. "We were down by double digits to Gonzaga, down by 17 to Georgetown in the second half. You have that mentality, to expect to win, and that's what helped us pull off those victories.

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    No. 8 seed Pitt (24-8) vs. No. 9 seed Wichita State (26-8), 1:40 p.m. today, EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City.

  • TV, Radio, Internet:

    TBS, KDKA-FM (93.7),

  • Pitt:

    Only Big East Conference team to make NCAA tournament for the 11th time in the past 12 years. ... One of only seven teams in NCAA Division I to accomplish that feat. ... Coach Jamie Dixon is 7-1 in the first game of NCAA tournaments. ... Is 1-1 against Wichita State, including a 68-55 victory in 2009.

  • Wichita State:

    Making second consecutive appearance in NCAA tournament. ... Lost as a No. 5 seed a year ago to No. 12 seed VCU. ... 8-10 all-time in NCAA tournament games. ... Coach Gregg Marshall led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournament appearances in his nine seasons as coach.

  • Hidden stat:

    There have been 136 games between Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in the NCAA tournament since seeding began in 1979. No. 8 seeds are 70-66.

"The margin is so small. That's what's great about the tournament. Teams like that can make an impact and make a run."

The past five years have seen the most lower-seeded teams making deep tournament runs, but it long has been part of the fabric of the tournament.

In 2006, George Mason was a No. 11 seed and reached the Final Four. In 1985, if you're looking for a good omen, Villanova won the NCAA championship as a No. 8 seed. The Wildcats remain the only No. 8 seed to win a title.

"I don't think seeding means anything," Patterson said. "Whoever wants it more goes out and takes it. When VCU had their great year, you could see in all their guys they wanted the games more. Butler did it two years in a row. When it came down to little plays, those teams were getting it done. That's what we have to do -- be mentally strong."

Fifth-year senior Tray Woodall was a member of two teams that earned No. 1 seeds and fell short of the Final Four. He was a freshman in 2009 when the Panthers reached the Elite Eight and a redshirt sophomore in 2011 when they lost to Butler.

There is more pressure associated with being a higher seed, but Woodall does not feel any less pressure compared to other seasons.

"It's the same for us," he said. "We have the same expectations. We want to go out and win. There are expectations regardless, whether we're an eighth seed, or whatever."

Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight has played and coached on teams with high expectations. He lost Sweet 16 games as a No. 2 seed and No. 3 seed. On both occasions, the Panthers lost to lower-seeded teams. He also has been a member of Dixon's staff since 2006 and lost to lower-seeded teams all six times the Panthers have made the tournament.

"It's basketball," Knight said. "This isn't pressure in my opinion. You go out there and perform the way you practice and you let the chips fall where they may. It's a game. We go out there and have fun and do the things that got us to this point. You try to make the most of this opportunity.

"You have to cherish every possession. Every possession matters. As far as pressure -- low seed, high seed -- the goal is to win the tournament. If you want to win the tournament, you're going to have to beat some higher seeds."

Richards said for lower seeds, the most important factor is believing in yourself, even when things seem dire.

"It takes a special group of kids, especially as a lower seed when people aren't expecting you to do anything," he said. "At Davidson, we were the underdog, but we felt like we could beat anyone. Earlier in that year, we played Duke, [North] Carolina, UCLA and North Carolina State. We played the monsters and it got us prepared. We knew we could play with them. Any lower seed, if you ask any team, they expect to win. You have to have that mentality."

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Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published March 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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