Panthers' N.Y. strut lost some of luster

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The routine in and around Petersen Events Center Monday appeared to be business as usual for early March.

Pitt basketball players and coaches loaded their duffel bags and boarded a bus for a ride to the airport and a flight to New York for the Big East Conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.

But something felt different.

There was no swagger. No talk of the NCAA Sweet 16, Final Four and -- dare say -- a national championship. Rather, they spoke brave words about the daunting task they will face starting with a first-round game at 2 p.m. today against St. John's.

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Pitt (16-15) vs. St. John's (13-18), 2 p.m. today, Big East Conference tournament, Madison Square Garden, New York.
  • TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN2, KDKA-FM (93.7),
  • Pitt: No. 13 seed after compiling a 5-13 conference record, its lowest in history of tournament. ... Has not won a conference tournament game since beating Georgetown in the 2008 championship. ... Lost past three tournament games after receiving double byes. ... Defeated St. John's, 89-69, Wednesday at Petersen Events Center. ... Is 27-13 at Madison Square Garden since 2000-01.
  • St. John's: No. 12 seed after compiling a 6-12 conference record. ... Leading scorers D'Angelo Harrison (17.2 ppg) and Moe Harkless (15.2 ppg) were named to the Big East all-rookie team. ... Was 2-5 in conference games at Madison Square Garden.
  • Hidden stat: Pitt has won 19 tournament games since 2000, the most of any team in the conference. Syracuse (15), Connecticut (14) and Georgetown (13) are next.

The Panthers (16-15) are seeded 13th, their lowest seeding since they joined the league in 1983 (the Panthers were 12th in a 12-team league in '96).

Pitt will be meeting 12th-seeded St. John's (13-18) for the second time this season. The Panthers defeated the Red Storm, 89-69, Wednesday at Peterson Center.

Pitt is in uncharted territory because it is playing on the tournament's opening day for the first time in Jamie Dixon's nine seasons as the coach and must win five games in five days to reach the NCAA tournament for an 11th consecutive season.

In recent years, Pitt had the security of knowing it was headed to the NCAA tournament regardless of their performance in the Big East party, but these Panthers are aware that their next loss could be their final game of the season.

They likely must win two games in the Big East tournament to earn a bid to the postseason NIT.

It's not clear whether Pitt would accept an invitation to third-tier tournaments College Basketball Invitational (CBI) and Tournament (CIT).

For seniors Nasir Robinson and Ashton Gibbs, this is their last opportunity to win a game in the Big East tournament. The Panthers lost their first game in each of the past three years when they had earned double-byes as either a No. 1 or 2 seed.

"This is really big for us," Robinson said. "It's really important for us to get our first win in the tournament. We've been coming up short the last couple years. This is a new season and we have a new attitude."

Gibbs dismissed the notion that this team might be entering the tournament with a different mindset, but he acknowledged that the Panthers are "in a do-or-die situation."

"That will bring out our best," he said. "We'll play very hard, I know that.

"We had a good practice and hopefully that will carry over to the game. We're going into the game with a lot of confidence."

This has been a season of disappointments and negative milestones for the Panthers, who were ranked as high as No. 9 Nov. 15 before a loss against Long Beach State and were 11-1 in late in December before losing eight in a row, the longest losing streak in Dixon's tenure.

They have lost six of their past seven games. The 15 losses are the most under Dixon in a season and his string of NCAA appearances is in jeopardy.

"We're practicing hard, we're playing hard, we're rebounding hard," Dixon said. "The effort is there, we need to execute better."

The only team to win five games in five days at the tournament occurred a year ago when Kemba Walker's Connecticut Huskies did it and used the Big East tournament championship as a springboard to winning the national championship.

Injuries to Robinson (knee) and Travon Woodall (abdomen strain/groin) will make it that much more difficult for Pitt to duplicate Connecticut's miraculous run.


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