Pitt's Michael Young reaches for a rebound over Duke's Derryck Thornton in the Panthers' best win of the season last month against the Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jamie Dixon made the case for Pitt as an NCAA tournament team several times this past week at the ACC tournament, but the Panthers got an endorsement from someone who has an even better grasp on the selection process than most coaches — Dixon’s boss, Scott Barnes.
Last year, Barnes, who is in his first year as Pitt’s athletic director, served as the NCAA tournament selection chair and was on the committee the past five years. He said there is no question in his mind the Panthers have done enough to be an at-large team.
Barnes also said he is happy with the direction of the program because he sees it trending in the right direction and believes it only needs a few “tweaks” rather than an overhaul in order to get back to consistently being in the Top 25.
“I think if you look at how we stack up against the field, you would surmise that we definitely should be in,” Barnes said Friday. “All 10 of the committee members have the same metrics, but some of them have different values and perspectives and that is what makes it work so well, but also means there is no guarantee.
“However, like I said, when you look at the metrics like the RPI, it puts in a good place, but when you also look at all of the other metrics — the BPI, the Sagarin rankings — you look at our numbers, there is consistency across the board. It says we are solid, and all those pieces matter.”
Barnes said the committee members each have their own biases as to what metrics they like to look at, and members may look at different aspects of each team — like style of play — but the RPI and strength of schedule are two important guides.
Pitt’s RPI is No. 54, which is close to the danger zone — the bubble — but the Panthers have some very strong numbers on their resume, as well as some history on their side.
Pitt struggled against the top 25 of the RPI (1-7) but was very good against teams 26 to 100 (8-2), and that winning percentage in that category — against teams Pitt will be compared to when the committee meets — is tied for 10th in the NCAA.
Pitt has nine wins against the top 100 in the RPI, which is tied for 24th in the NCAA, and Pitt’s eight wins against teams 26 to 100 are tied for 10th.
Pitt’s strength of schedule is No. 27, and while that is propped up by the ACC games (Pitt’s non-conference strength of schedule is No. 183), Barnes said the overall number is very important because it means they have played a lot of NCAA tournament-caliber teams.
“I can tell you wholeheartedly that what conference you come from is not a factor, it is not discussed in the process,” Barnes said. “It isn’t like they say ‘Oh, we need more Big Ten teams,’ or ‘There are too many ACC teams’ — but indirectly, your conference affiliation comes into play because in major conferences, you are playing better teams more often.
“So you look at the number of top-100 teams we play, it is a lot more than schools from smaller conferences. And yes, they do look at the non-conference strength of schedule to see who you are trying to play, and that is a factor, as well, to some degree.”
Barnes said that Pitt’s non-conference strength of schedule was obviously hurt by the cancellation of the Gonzaga game in Japan to start the season, and he thinks that should be, on some level, at least a part of the discussion about Pitt’s non-conference schedule.
But he also acknowledged that Pitt has to do better in non-conference scheduling than it has the past few years and he said he has been working with Dixon to come up with some better schedules in the future.
“We have had conversations about it, we are working on it,” Barnes said. “You can say you want to do it, but the execution is not always easy because it isn’t like everyone you ask is going to sign up to come play at the Petersen Center. We have multiple opportunities we are working on and I’ll tell you, we will get it done, but it isn’t as easy as some people think.
“It is something we need to do for two reasons — to enhance our fan experience, which is really important to us, and also to bolster our RPI and things. But this is more of a tweak we are talking about. We aren’t talking about blowing it up all together, just one or two games is enough.
“You can over-schedule yourself quickly if you try to do too much, but we don’t need to; just a couple of games will get us where we need to be.”
Barnes said he has seen real progress from the program this year and thinks Dixon has done an excellent job with this team — and he points to the progress of redshirt freshman Cameron Johnson and sophomore Ryan Luther as evidence.
He said he will sit down at the end of the season with Dixon — like he does with every coach — and put together a strategy for the future, but he believes there aren’t many things that need to change.
“Look, we have got one of the best coaches in America,” Barnes said. “As all our programs have, we are going through growing pains with what we are seeing in the ACC. It is a different recruiting footprint for us, there is a wider net we need to have for players.
“All of us need to continue to improve the recruiting process for this still somewhat new league. But I’m excited about the student-athletes [Dixon] has coming in and in that regard, I love the pieces we saw this week, the two Pittsburgh kids [Luther and Johnson] and what they have already become.
“Those two have grown up and that is a testament to Jamie and his staff’s ability to develop and to teach and to coach. There is a bright future with those two as part of the program moving forward.”
Although the metrics seem to favor Pitt, the history does as well, as no ACC team has been left out of the field with 20 or more wins, a .500 or better win percentage in league play, a top-60 RPI and a top-50 strength of schedule.
And the other thing is this — the Panthers pass the “look test,” which Barnes said is actually important and a point of discussion with the selection committee when they consider at-large teams.
“The look test is very real. Does a team feel or look like an NCAA tournament team?” Barnes said. “And we have played the best teams in the country — just look who we have played the last month. We have beaten a lot of good teams, like Syracuse and Notre Dame. We dominated a team like Davidson. All of the members have their own preferences and biases.
“But the basketball guys on the committee, they all generally understand it and there is no question we look and we have played like an NCAA tournament team.”
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
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