Clemson looms as must-win for Pitt

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Nobody really knows Pitt's fortunes with regards to the NCAA tournament field, but by all accounts the Panthers are somewhere on or near the bubble.

And given how much this team has struggled recently, there is no question that Saturday's game at Clemson is important, but there is some question as to whether it is of the "win and in or lose and out" variety.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Thursday that he isn't focused on the bigger picture of trying to qualify for the NCAA tournament; he is just worried about trying to beat Clemson.

It is a message that seemingly has resonated with his players, though they acknowledge they must win as many games as possible to ensure they reach their goal of an NCAA tournament berth.

"We are just focused on what we can focus on, which is trying to get a win Saturday against Clemson and then trying to get some wins in the ACC tournament," said freshman Josh Newkirk. "We will let everything else take care of itself. We realize [the tournament situation], but we just want to focus on Saturday and like I said, let the other stuff take care of itself."

Dixon also acknowledged it is a big game for the Panthers (22-8, 10-7). They are tied with the Tigers (19-10, 10-7) in the standings, but he said the only way they can win is if they are focused on playing their best basketball.

"We have some things we need to get better at, and we are running out of time, and we understand that," Dixon said. "We obviously have a big game against Clemson. We know the stakes and we know what we are going for, but we have to play better than we did in our last game [against North Carolina State].

"We have to get back to defending well and rebounding. We have to rebound better because we didn't, and that caught up to us in our last game. But we know what we need to do -- it is obvious -- we need to go and play well, and I'd say there has never been a time when you went into your last game and didn't have to win for some reason."

Dixon said he hasn't studied the tournament projections enough to know where the Panthers stand.

"Here, we've talked about it, there have been times where we were in but [others said] it was doomsday," Dixon said. "We've had that question asked of us, but we were pretty safely in the field and that's been pretty consistent. So we've seen this before and you have to win no matter where you are because there isn't a lot of separation in a lot of spots."

The game is important if for no other reason than a victory would give Pitt the fifth seed in the ACC tournament. If they lose, they could fall to seventh if Florida State (18-11, 9-8) beats Syracuse Sunday. The Seminoles own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Pitt.

And while there isn't much difference among the teams Pitt would play in the quarterfinals Thursday as a the fifth, sixth or seventh seed, it would change who the Panthers would play in the semifinals should they advance.

The loss to North Carolina State hurt the Panthers because it dropped their RPI into the 50s, and for most national observers, that makes them a bubble team.

Junior guard Cameron Wright said the team's spirit and confidence are still high despite losing six of the past nine games. He said the Panthers know how important it is to beat Clemson and what it means in the grand scheme of things.

"This game is huge. We are in a must-win situation, so we have to go out and win a ballgame," Wright said. "We're well aware of the predicament that we put ourselves in with the way that we played. But it is March Madness for a reason and every team at some time in their school history has to travel this road, and unfortunately it is us this year. But we just have to go get it done."

On the injury front, Dixon said forward Mike Young continues to fight through some lower-back pain. Young will continue to receive treatment, Dixon said, and will continue to play. The coaches have explored options to ration his minutes as much as possible while still keeping him in the starting lineup.

"I didn't think he was going to go the last two games," Dixon said. "We know what it is; he is playing through it and he is battling and he seems to feel a little better the past two days. I'm proud of how tough he is through the pain and discomfort he is feeling."

Paul Zeise:, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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