Unranked Pitt Panthers motivated by snub

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The Pitt Panthers are 9-0 and one of only eight teams from the five major conferences who are undefeated. But they also are the only one of those eight teams that isn't ranked in the top 25 in one or both of the two major polls.

But while that doesn't sit particularly well with the players, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said he is fine with that because it gives his team something to continue to work for.

"There is nothing wrong having to work hard to earn something, we all know it is based on what we had coming back," Dixon said. "We only had five guys returning, if you look through it there aren't many teams in the rankings who had only five coming back. I am not concerned about it, there is nothing wrong with having to earn something, we just have to keep playing well.

"I like what we're doing, I think we can get better and they are working hard to get better."

While it is true the Panthers weren't expected to be quite as good as they have been because they didn't have much experience returning and also lost an NBA first-round draft choice who left school early, the other knock on them has been their lack of quality wins.

Two national college basketball writers in recent days, CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish and ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, have commented on why they haven't ranked Pitt and others because they haven't beaten -- or played anyone yet.

That, of course, comes back to the Panthers' schedule, which Dixon said seems to be an annual discussion and one that is generally not particularly fair to his team when weighed against other teams.

"We have gone through this year after year," Dixon said. "First of all, when you are in the best league, half the teams [in the rankings] are in your league so you can't schedule them in the non-league so you throw them out of the equation. You try, you plan, you are given teams to play but when you beat them, then they are not going to be ranked.

"If Stanford beat us, they probably would have been ranked. We have been ranked most of the time and now we aren't so it is kind of a new dynamic for us. But I do think we are as good as some of the teams we have had that have been ranked."

"And generally most of those [ranked] teams, if you look, they haven't beaten too many ranked teams either, so maybe they have beaten one, if one is a lot more than none, so be it."

Dixon said that one major issue he has with people who say the Panthers don't play a tough schedule is that they have been in the best league in the country the past few years in the Big East. So to focus on just the first 13 games -- while ignoring the 18 conference games -- is short-sighted.

That point could be debated this year, though, as the Atlantic Coast Conference has had some very high profile struggles coming out of the gate and its overall strength is not nearly what the Big East has been the past few years. Almost every ACC team has at least one bad loss. And some at home to teams from so-called mid-major conferences.

Just this past two weeks, for instance, Virginia lost to Wisconsin-Green Bay, Notre Dame lost to North Dakota State and North Carolina lost to UAB.

But Dixon points out that isn't his fault and he also points out that if beating a bunch of nobodies is so easy, why are there only eight undefeated teams in the major conferences left?

Dixon said he understands the Panthers' place in the rankings -- or more accurately, outside the rankings, but his focus is on winning and they will get ranked if they win enough games and all that really matters is that they are among the top 68 teams come NCAA tournament time anyway.

His players, however, have used the rankings snub as a little bit of motivation because they see other teams who haven't played as well as them that are getting a benefit of the doubt they don't seem to be getting.

"I'd be lying to you if I told you I don't look at those rankings," guard Cameron Wright said. "It provides a bigger chip for our team. I feel like we will get ranked but until then we will just take it one game at a time. I feel like we are getting some recognition but they just don't want to throw us into the rankings yet. We just have to focus on our opponents and whatever happens, happens."

Pitt has had this week off for finals and will return to the court Saturday against Youngstown State at Petersen Events Center.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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