Pitt has won six consecutive games since losing to Michigan Thanksgiving eve and is among a small number of teams with just one loss this season. The Panthers are playing well -- so well, in fact, they can clinch the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship tonight with a victory against Delaware State.
No, the Panthers have not switched leagues again in the never-ending conference realignments. It only seems that way.
In a scheduling quirk, Pitt will be playing its third opponent from the MEAC in the first 12 games.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the MEAC's automatic NCAA berth will not be presented at game's end. Pitt must earn that the old-fashioned way by beating quality opponents, and this season that means posting a winning record in Big East games. Quality opponents have been few and far between on the non-conference schedule.
The Panthers are 10-0 against teams from mid- and low-major conferences and 0-1 against their one opponent from a major conference.
No. 2 Michigan handed Pitt a 67-62 loss at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Tip-off Tournament Nov. 23. The margin of victory in Pitt's 10 victories is nearly 25 points. There have been a couple of competitive games, including an overtime victory against Oakland, but the majority of the wins have been lopsided.
After Delaware State, the Panthers play host to Kennesaw State Sunday, then have a week off before opening Big East play at home against No. 11 Cincinnati.
How prepared the Panthers are for that showdown against the Bearcats is anyone's guess, but junior forward Lamar Patterson believes the Panthers are ready for the conference schedule.
"I have my own expectations for the team," Patterson said. "I feel we're pretty good. We just have to go prove it. We let one slip by against Michigan. When we play another top team like Cincinnati we have to show it."
Until then, the Panthers have to play out the remaining non-conference schedule. Opponents from the MEAC have been on the wrong end of two of the bigger laughers at the Petersen Events Center this season. Pitt thumped Howard, 70-46, Nov. 27. On Saturday, Bethune-Cookman was drubbed 89-40 and went back to Florida with the distinction of being defeated by the largest margin at the Petersen Events Center.
Five of Pitt's 10 victories have been by 30 points or more. Getting disinterested in such games can be a natural instinct for players, but Patterson said the Panthers have demonstrated good focus by winning big.
"It's a mental thing," Patterson said. "You can't play down to the competition. I learned that when I was young. It's good that we're doing what we're supposed to do, playing defense, outrebounding them.
"Doing that in these games it will translate [once the Big East schedule begins]. We're not losing focus out there. We're focused all the time. When it's a tight game, I feel like the focus will be there."
One of the other reasons the Panthers have won so many games in lopsided fashion is coach Jamie Dixon does not have any eligible walk-ons to play when games are out of hand. Mike Lecak is a transfer from Wheeling Jesuit and must sit out under NCAA transfer rules. Aron Nwankwo is redshirting because he wants an extra season of eligibility next year.
In addition, sophomore center Malcolm Gilbert and freshman guard Chris Jones are redshirting. That means Dixon only has 10 players to use, and every one is a regular contributor in the rotation. So, with talented players finishing games, there has not been much of a dropoff.
Dixon has made sure to mention his predicament in numerous postgame news conferences so as not to offend opposing coaches, but he also is not apologizing for his players competing at a high level when they are asked to play.
"We have pretty good players, experienced players who are in there at the end of games," Dixon said. "So it's a unique situation. We just want to execute and do the things we're doing. Every minute is valuable."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.