For now, Pitt's chances to make NCAA tournament field are good
February 12, 2016 12:00 AM
Joel Auerbach/Associated Press
Pitt junior Chris Jones soars toward the rim in Tuesday night's loss to Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pitt men’s basketball team has lost two games in a row while falling to 0-4 against ranked opponents. Next, it has the daunting task of visiting No. 9 North Carolina.
If the Panthers (17-6, 6-5 ACC) lose to the Tar Heels, they would fall to .500 in the conference. At that point, there might be legitimate questions about their chances to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
But the reality is that a game against North Carolina (20-4, 9-2) is a “nothing-to-lose and everything-to-gain” situation for the Panthers because of the way a road game against a highly ranked opponent affects a team’s RPI and strength of schedule.
Win or lose, Pitt’s strength-of-schedule number will get a boost. If Pitt loses, it won’t change its RPI much and won’t change its profile for the NCAA tournament selection committee because it is a game they are not expected to win. If they win, then the Panthers would get a nice boost in their RPI, they would add a road win against a ranked opponent to their resume and — assuming there isn’t a complete collapse after it — all but clinch their spot in the NCAA field.
The following game, however, is an entirely different matter. That comes Tuesday at home against Wake Forest (10-14, 1-11), and it offers very little help if they win, but could be devastating if they lose.
According to CBSSports.com RPI and bracketology expert Jerry Palm, the Panthers aren’t in danger of missing the field unless they don’t win the games they are supposed to win. That’s more true for home games than road games.
“I don’t even really consider them to be on the bubble; there are a lot of teams in worse shape than Pitt,” Palm said. “Obviously, they have lots of opportunities left to improve where they are as they have four tournament-quality teams left on their schedule [North Carolina, Syracuse (16-8, 6-5), Duke (18-6, 7-4) and Louisville (19-5, 8-3)] ... but they are in a good spot right now as long as they don’t fall completely apart.
“But you have to beat Wake Forest at home. Home losses are bad and they have had a few, but home losses to non-contenders are devastating, and certainly that game would qualify as that.”
Pitt also has a couple of road games left against teams that currently are not in contention for the NCAA tournament. The Panthers finish at Virginia Tech (13-12, 5-7), then Georgia Tech (13-11, 3-8).
Both teams have proven to be tough and dangerous at home.
Palm has Pitt as a No. 6 seed in his latest bracket projections and has the Panthers at No. 40 in the RPI, which is about where they are in most RPI rankings (ESPN has them at 37, the NCAA has them at 43) and he said that means at this point they are safely in the field.
But there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
“It is impossible to know what them going 3-4, for instance, down the stretch would mean for them with relation to the rest of the field because we are talking about four weeks of basketball left to be played and conference tournaments,” Palm said. “Like I said, in general, they fit the profile of a team that just needs to avoid bad losses, and I think they will get in.
Palm said the Panthers resume isn’t loaded with a bunch of wins that jump out at you — their best win is at unranked Notre Dame (17-7, 8-4) — but, more important, there aren’t any terrible losses.
Pitt’s worst loss is at home against N.C. State (12-12, 2-9), and the Wolfpack is hovering right around 100 in the RPI.
Another thing in Pitt’s favor is that two teams that usually would be in the field —– SMU and Louisville — are ineligible, opening two tournament slots.
“They are one of the teams, because of the league that they play in, who could make a huge step forward and climb into a top-four seed with some wins,” Palm said. “They could also fall out of the field with some losses, but they are still in a relatively good spot and just need to win some games.”
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
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