Pitt's margin for error now slim to none

Just when Pitt was starting to close in on putting itself into the driver’s seat for an NCAA tournament at-large berth, the Panthers lost Monday at home to North Carolina State and for the first time this year raised serious questions about their postseason hopes.

When the Panthers woke up Tuesday, they found themselves in a strange position — squarely on the tournament bubble, according to the experts who predict the NCAA tournament bids.

That’s hard to fathom, considering the Panthers were 18-2, 6-1 in the ACC, Jan. 25 after a win against Maryland and some were expecting them to contend for the ACC title.

A little more than a month later, Pitt (22-8, 10-7) has lost 6 of 10 games and likely must win at least one more, if not two, to avoid sliding out of the NCAA tournament.

A brief sampling of what the experts are saying about the Panthers suggests that a game Saturday at Clemson has become far more important than it appeared a few weeks ago.

Jerry Palm, an Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and NCAA tournament expert for CBSSports.com, moved the Panthers from the “in” category of his tournament watch to “on the fence” after their loss to the Wolfpack.

“We welcome Pittsburgh to the bottom of the bracket and the bubble after another home loss to a non-contender,” Palm wrote.

“They have just one win over a likely tournament team [Stanford]. They also have a bad non-conference schedule. That’s not a great combination.”

Palm added that Pitt’s weak non-conference schedule “could come into play if they get close to the cut line.”

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi also pushed the Panthers into the category of a bubble team.

“For most of November, December and January, the Panthers played really good basketball that slipped under the radar because of a bad schedule and close losses in their only noteworthy games [Cincinnati, Syracuse],” Lunardi wrote. “A few months later, the losses have gone beyond the ‘brutally close and to good teams’ variety and extended outward into the realm of ‘at home against bubble teams.’ ”

It should be noted that while most of the analysts have the Panthers firmly on the bubble now, they also still have the Panthers in their projected field of 68 teams for the NCAA tournament.

The Sporting News and Palm have Pitt projected as a No. 10 seed and Lunardi has the Panthers as a No. 9, so while they have been reeling, they likely control their own fate.

And while their RPI numbers are sliding as they are now No. 51 — at one point they were in the top 20 — the reality is they do still have some good things on their resume for the NCAA committee to consider.

The best thing the Panthers have going for them might be this — if they beat Clemson Saturday, they will finish fifth in the ACC with an 11-7 conference record. While the committee claims it doesn’t look at the power conferences differently, it is hard to believe it would only take four teams from the 15-team ACC.

If Pitt beats Clemson, it also would be the 10th win away from Petersen Events Center and seventh road ACC win.

All of that, of course, hinges on the Panthers finding a way to win Saturday, then making sure they avoid being upset in the first round of the ACC tournament against a lower-seeded team.

As the No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament, the Panthers would play the winner of the No. 12 vs. No. 13 game and the candidates to be in that game are Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Pitt has beaten all of those teams already, but a loss to any of them could be the kind that pushes the Panthers off the bubble and out of the tournament.

One thing that is clear about the Panthers is that they won’t beat anyone if they rebound the way they did against the Wolfpack.

North Carolina State beat the Panthers, 35-23, in rebounds and that included 13 offensive rebounds to Pitt’s two, a school-record low that left coach Jamie Dixon and his players shaking their heads after the game.

All those offensive rebounds led to the Wolfpack beating the Panthers in second-chance points, 16-0, and it also led to 13 more field-goal attempts by North Carolina State, a significant number in a close game.

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

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