Big East Conference baseball crown on line as Panthers set to take on Louisville

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The Pitt baseball team has won 40 games for the first time in school history. The Panthers enter their final series of the regular season in first place in the Big East Conference, with an impressive 15-game winning streak in league play.

But according to Baseball America and other websites that project the NCAA tournament field, they still have some work to do in order to secure the school's first NCAA tournament berth since 1995.

Pitt (40-12, 18-3) is on the NCAA tournament bubble entering its road series which begins tonight against No. 10 Louisville. The Cardinals (43-10, 17-4) are one game behind the Panthers in second place in the Big East.

The reasons cited for Pitt's precarious NCAA tournament standing are poor strength of schedule and some midweek losses to subpar teams that have dragged down the team's ranking in the Rating Percentage Index, the same system the NCAA uses to help select the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournament fields.

The Panthers are No. 72 in the RPI and their strength of schedule ranks 239th in Division I. And, while they have dominated the Big East, they have dropped non-conference games against the likes of Niagara, Virginia Commonwealth, Coppin State and Akron.

"Whoever tells you they don't pay attention to it is really just lying," senior catcher Elvin Soto said. "You do pay attention to it when you're in the position we are. You definitely pay attention to it and you definitely want to go into the Big East tournament having an idea of whether you're going to be in or out."

"Winning the regular season would definitely give us more leverage going into the selection show."

Pitt coach Joe Jordano believes his team already has done enough to warrant an at-large berth, but he readily admits the Panthers lack the national reputation of other teams that will be vying for at-large berths.

"I can't control what other people think," Jordano said. "I know this team is a very good baseball team. Based on the schedule we've played, we have some incredible wins and we've had some tough losses. Overall, we have 12 losses, seven are by one run.

"You have to look at the full body of work. If you look at any school, except for a small number, when you look at the schedules, everyone has had a tough loss or two. If you look at the top 25 there are eight teams with 40 or more wins and we're one of them. We're ranked in all five major polls. That's never been done before [at Pitt]. Those are things that I'm not going to spend a lot of time on. We'll let the chips fall where they may, but I'm confident this team deserves a regional opportunity."

Jordano's club could make the speculation a non-issue by winning the series against Louisville. By sweeping or taking two of three against the Cardinals the Panthers would earn the Big East regular-season championship, which previously happened in 1994. They also could secure the conference's automatic berth by winning the Big East tournament next week in Clearwater, Fla.

"We're excited to be in this position," said junior pitcher Matt Wotherspoon, who has a 9-1 record and will pitch Friday in the second game of the series. "It's whoever takes two games will be the regular-season champ. We're ready for the opportunity."

Many players on the team would like to avoid the feeling they had in 2010, when the Panthers won 38 games, including 18 in the Big East, but were left out of the NCAA tournament field.

The Panthers don't want to leave any doubt in the minds of those that select the field.

"I was part of the 2010 team, and that was probably one of the best teams I ever played on, talent-wise," senior shortstop Evan Oswald said. "And we still didn't really get that much recognition. So it's not a big surprise for me.

"A lot of people talk about strength of schedule and how our strength of schedule isn't that good. But with how we're doing right now, it shouldn't matter. We have 40 wins, we're playing great baseball; I just feel like we should get a little bit more recognition."

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Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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