Pitt cannot win a Big East regular-season championship in its final season as a member of the conference, but the Panthers just might get the path of least resistance in their final quest for a conference tournament title.
Problem is, the path of least resistance has been full of roadblocks for Pitt since the Big East adopted the double-bye format for its tournament four years ago.
Since 2009, the Big East has awarded the top four teams in the league standings a free pass to the quarterfinal round of the tournament while the rest of the teams begin play Tuesday and Wednesday. Pitt has earned the double bye three times and lost its first game on all three occasions.
The Panthers are not alone. In 16 games, teams with the double bye are 9-7.
In two of those years, a team with a double bye won the tournament. In the other two, a No. 9 seed and a No. 7 seed won. In 2011, Connecticut, the No. 9 seed, won five games in five days to claim the title. Louisville won as a No. 7 seed last year.
Pitt can again earn the double bye for next week's tournament if it wins at DePaul and Notre Dame loses its final game Saturday at Louisville. The Panthers also can earn the double bye by finishing in a three-way tie for fourth place with Syracuse and Notre Dame. Pitt cannot get the double bye by finishing in a tie with Notre Dame because the Panthers lost their only meeting with the Irish. They win the tiebreaker against Syracuse in a head-to-head tie thanks to a win against the Orange last month.
"A lot of teams have lost with the double bye," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "You want to win all the games you can. It's an accomplishment to be a part of the double bye. We can't forget that. We certainly don't."
Dixon also said the extra rest is valuable at this time of the year. The Panthers have been relatively healthy all season, but are a bit banged up now. Freshman center Steven Adams is recovering after spraining his left ankle in practice Saturday. He sat out the Villanova game but is expected to be ready for DePaul. Dixon also said Dante Taylor, Adams' backup, is battling some minor injuries.
"Coach Dixon said a double bye might kind of help us," junior forward Talib Zanna said. "We probably need that double bye so we have a couple of days. It's important."
Latest NCAA projections
In addition to where they stand in the Big East, Pitt's NCAA tournament seeding remains in flux as well. Jerry Palm of CBS and Joe Lunardi of ESPN project the Panthers as a No. 6 seed in their most recent bracket predictions. Both have the Panthers playing in Dayton, Ohio, the closest second- and third-round site. Both analysts predict a potential third-round game against No. 11 Florida.
StatSheet projects Pitt as a No. 7 seed.
Pitt has been among the worst free-throw shooting teams in the Big East for most of the season, but the Panthers have steadily improved in that area in recent weeks.
The Panthers are 12th in the conference with a .667 percentage, but they have shot higher than 70 percent in four of the past five games, including a 75 percent (18 for 24) performance against Villanova. They were 7 for 7 from the line in overtime against the Wildcats.
• Junior forward Lamar Patterson is 0 for 9 from 3-point range in the past four games. He has not made a shot from behind the arc since going 4 for 7 from 3-point range in the Feb. 16 loss at Marquette. Patterson, Pitt's second-leading scorer, has reached double figures once in those four games.
• Senior guard Tray Woodall has reached double figures in nine consecutive games. In the past three games, he is 7 for 14 from 3-point range and has overtaken Patterson as the team's top 3-point shooter (37.9 percent).
• Reserve guard Trey Zeigler has not scored more than two points in any of the past seven games. In that seven-game span, Zeigler is 4 for 20 from the field over an average of 15 minutes per game.mobilehome - pittsports
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published March 6, 2013 5:00 AM