Pitt falling apart, brick by brick

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So whose walk in the black forest appears the most ominous at this exact moment; who has it worst: Pitt's alleged basketballing Panthers, Pittsburgh hockey-balling Penguins, or yer Stillers?

Who is deepest in the psychological muck?

Hard to say, but at least the Steelers are done.

For the others, the beatings will apparently continue until morale improves.

Wednesday night in the sleepy Oakland Zoo, the Panthers played good defense. And when the Panthers had the ball, they played great defense.

Five seconds after the final horn, a quick-witted video display operator wiped all evidence of the final score of the Pitt-Rutgers game from every last bulb in the Petersen Events Center.

If anyone wondered what had just happened, they were no longer able to quantify it at a glance. The exiting audience had come to accept a certain truth were it to become self-evident, that Pitt was in serious trouble had it lost a fifth consecutive game.

Even by a point.

It lost by 23.

The margin is staggering by itself, but almost inconceivable in the raw numbers that no one was allowed to see as Rutgers walked off the floor.

"We're very sorry for the way we played," said coach Jamie Dixon, his head bowed. "Our guys are extremely disappointed. We're coming off a very good practice [where] we shot the ball well."

Really. Practice some more.

Or maybe less.

Pitt made four field goals in the first half. Let me dive on the floor for some perspective on that.

If you selected five Pitt students at random, subjected them to zero coaching, let them practice by themselves once a week, kicked each of them in the shins as they walked onto the court, they might get four baskets in 20 minutes.

"We get down on ourselves," said sophomore forward J.J. Moore, "and we started to take it out on each other."

Moore shot 2 for10, Nasir Robinson 3 for 9, Talib Zanna, who was 8 for 8 at DePaul last week, was 2 for 7. Each inexplicable in various ways, but none so much as Ashton Gibbs' 2 for 11.

Gibbs was the Big East Conference preseason player of the year. Then an unfortunate thing happened. The season actually started.

Gibbs has been awful, but at least on Wednesday night he faced the media rather than hide as he so successfully did after the Cincinnati and DePaul games.

"We think the world of Jamie and his offense," said Rutgers coach Mike Rice, the former Dixon assistant and Robert Morris coach. "Everybody goes through this. It's going to work out, especially when you have a great coach and good players."

That's as stark a portrait of where Pitt is at as anyone could have recorded. Would you ever have imagined anyone in the country, or anyone in the Big East, much less a still-developing highly callow Rutgers team, not only winning at Pitt but telling the Panthers "don't worry, be happy?"

This was Pitt's fifth home loss of the season. In the previous nine years, home losses totaled 11.

All manner of legitimate and insightful analysis has gone into the conventional explanations for why a giant spaceship landed in Oakland when no one was watching and transported the Pitt basketball program to another solar system, but now the reason is no more or less than this:

Pitt can't shoot.

It was good to hear Dixon admit it, because too often coaches stride into postgame media confabs and explain that "we got great looks, played good defense, decent in transition, shot well from the line, kept our poise, did everything we wanted to, but we just didn't shoot very well."

Well, see, that's important. Shooting is not separate from basketball. Shooting's a pretty big part of it. Pitt once scored 99 points against Rutgers. Dec. 4, 1972. On another winter night nearly 40 years later, it scored 39.

There's your final, in case you missed it, 62-39.

This is what happens when you make 7 of your first 45 field goal attempts, 8 of your first 49. There's bad shooting, really bad shooting, horribly bad shooting, and then there is Pitt's current strain -- comically horrid bad shooting.

Nasir Robinson missed a shot from 5 feet in the second half that might have been good from 20. It bounced off the glass and caromed into the deep left corner. Nice touch.

Didn't much matter. By that point, the rebounds were being contested only between two or three Rutgers players.

The final shooting indignity came when Zanna was called for basket interference on a Pitt layup that was spiraling around the inside of the rim with no place to go but through the net. Zanna reached in and poked at it, as if he was afraid the Panthers might have accidently scored.

"Shooting is really pulling down the other parts of our game," Dixon said. "We had some pretty good shots, but we're just not playing offense the way we have to for a variety of reasons."

Well, at least we know the main reason, or is 21 percent from the field lost in somebody's translation.

On the upside, Pitt's still putting it in the net more often than the Penguins, just not by much.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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