Pitt has little margin for error in bid for NCAA tournament spot

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Pitt has lost four of its past six games and is 1-6 this season against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, meaning its NCAA resume has taken some hits in recent weeks.

Overall, it consists of a lot of wins against weak teams and only one quality win.

In reality, the Panthers are nowhere close to the NCAA tournament bubble, according to college basketball analysts, and as long as they defeat the teams they are supposed to down the stretch, they will be in the field of 68.

“I’m not at all concerned about Pitt as an NCAA tournament team right now; they are definitely a tournament team,” said Jerry Palm, the bracketology expert for CBSSports.com.

“They do have the quality win over Stanford [currently No. 47 in the RPI] and all of their losses are to top 20-caliber teams — so while it is going to be hard for Pitt to get a high seed, they are comfortably in the field and will be unless they completely fall apart down the stretch.

“Now, if Stanford falls apart and then Pitt loses a couple of bad games, well, then it could be an issue. But we’re a long way from that right now. As long as they keep winning games they should, they will be fine.”

Pitt’s strength is that it has a good RPI (31), a solid number of top-100 wins (six with the opportunity for three more), no bad losses (all six are to teams in the RPI top 30) and seven wins on the road or at neutral sites.

Palm, who has made a career of analyzing the RPI and predicting the NCAA tournament field, said the Panthers would have to play their way out of the tournament and that they have few opportunities to improve their seeding.

That’s because the ACC is having a down year. Outside of the top four conference teams — Syracuse (third in the RPI), Duke (9), Virginia (15) and North Carolina (27) — there aren’t many chances for teams to get quality wins.

In Pitt’s case, it has played those teams already, so the final five games of the regular season would just solidify its status as an NCAA tournament team.

“The ACC isn’t as bad as the SEC in that department [of providing few opportunities for quality wins], but Pitt now is in a situation where they need to win their games to avoid bad losses,” Palm said. “And then hope in the ACC tournament, if they want to improve their seeding, they get a chance to play a couple games against those top teams.

“Things can change, there is still some time, but for Pitt, the issue isn’t being left out. It is trying to improve their seed and that’s going to be hard to do.”

Palm said Pitt is somewhere in the middle of seeding (the 7 to 9 range) for the NCAA tournament and right now he is projecting the ACC as a five-bid league.

Those numbers are similar to the projections of ESPN bracketology expert Joe Lunardi, who has Pitt as a No. 7 seed and one of only five ACC teams in the field.

That would be a major disappointment for the 15-team ACC. When Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame were added to the league, the goal was for the conference to duplicate what the Big East had done in recent years when it got eight or nine tournament teams into the tournament.

But Palm cautioned that it is too early to draw any conclusions about which teams at or near the bubble are in or out because there are still almost four weeks of the season left, as well as conference tournaments.

“I look at the ACC and see a few teams — Florida State [59 in RPI], N.C. State [51] and Clemson [74] — that could get on a roll and play their way into the field,” Palm said. “But right now, there are only five in. But it is still somewhat early. These teams need to win games to get in, but again, it comes down to how many opportunities they have to win quality games as well.”

But one common “quality” opponent left for those three is Pitt, so it is not going to be an easy road for the Panthers.

Pitt (20-6, 8-5) will host the Seminoles Sunday and then play two teams — Boston College (194) and Notre Dame (105) — that would be troublesome for the Panthers if they were to lose.

Because they did not pick up any quality wins in recent weeks, the Panthers have eliminated much of their margin for error, Palm said.

“I’m not saying Pitt can’t lose again, but you have to beat Boston College, that would be a bad loss,” Palm said. “The committee is usually forgiving of a team with a bad loss or two, provided they have enough quality wins to offset it. Pitt doesn’t have that luxury, so getting a high seed will be tough.

“But again, like I said, as long as they keep winning they will be an NCAA team.”

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

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