Gene Collier: Monitoring the NCAA buzz at Pitt

They saw that ninth seed coming at the landmark souvenir stand on Forbes, which is why you couldn’t get a Pitt T-shirt commemorating the NCAA basketball tournament Monday, even if you could easily snag a green “Kiss Me I’m French” pullover on St. Patrick’s Day.

“What nationality you lookin’ for?” asked the helpful salesperson.

Yeah, he had a good selection, but nothing that brought together the topical descent-into-Madness ethnicity of basketball, Pitt and NCAA.

Had Jamie Dixon’s team had a higher seed, as it often has in this golden era of Pitt basketball, merchandisers would have rolled the dice on two strong weeks of sales, but getting past eighth-seeded Colorado Thursday looms a little nettlesome, to say nothing of overturning Florida, the tournament’s overall top seed.

The entire men’s field is shaping up as Gator bait, according to oddsmakers at, who’ve installed Florida as an 11-2 favorite. Pitt’s odds against winning six in a row got portrayed as 66-1. (Not bad at all, really).

Still, there’s gotta be excitement in Oakland this week, right? Or that’s approximately what I was thinking when I resolved to hang out there for a while, monitoring the buzz, absorbing the complex flavors of anticipation.

Or something.

Nothing’s as reliably flavorful on a perpetual basis as the Dirty O, of course, where the original hot dog is still only $3.84 including tax and still tastes drop-dead wonderful, and that’s probably why I wasn’t taking in a lot of tournament buzz as I wolfed one.

The only buzz, in fact, was from the person filling out the job application at the counter.

“I need personal references?” she asked.

“Just a couple,” said the counter person.

Well, obviously. It’s the O!

But had I stayed another 10 seconds, I’d have been down another $3.84, so I walked through the student union mining for buzz.

“You a college basketball fan?” I asked a young female student.

“Yes,” she said with a tentative smile.

“Would you like to comment to the Post-Gazette on Pitt’s chances in the NCAAs? You’ve been selected at random.”

“Naw, I’m good.”

No problem; thanks anyway. There had to be thousands of people on campus ready to characterize this edition of Pitt’s almost annual colloquy of anticipation and heartache, its hopes and battered dreams amid its singular March Madness.

Fortunately, just outside the Cathedral of Yearning, Billy Sachse was arriving early for class, having pretty much gathered and catalogued not only his thoughts on the matter, but the thoughts of a majority of the student body and most of the city, at least as I see them.

“I actually like the situation they’re in this year because there have been plenty of years they’ve projected to go deep into the tournament, they’ve had high expectations, and as any Pitt fan knows, they’ve fallen short of those expectations in the past,” said the junior marketing major. “They really have nothing to lose. I think they’re going to play with a chip on their shoulder. I’m not going to look past Colorado in the first round because I think that’s what people did last year with Wichita State. If they get past Colorado, they have a chance to really put on a show in the second round.”

Sachse, whose dad graduated from Pitt in the late 1980s, described himself as perhaps more optimistic than most fans on a campus that has heard all too recently that the Panthers might not even deserve a place anywhere in the 68-slot bracket.

“We never really got that signature win this year,” he said. “We lost a lot of tough games. People were really down on the team. The atmosphere was kind of, you know, we’re underachieving. Wait ’til next year until we get these new players in. Just kind of chalked it up as a loss this year.

“I think a lot of people are like, ‘Ah, maybe we’ll get that first round but then we have to play the overall [No.] 1 seed and there’s no chance we can beat them. That contributes to my opinion about them being in a great position. Most people are counting them out, so play with that chip on your shoulder and make something happen.”

From Sachse’s spot on the Cathedral steps to the far boundaries of Pitt’s campus and beyond to the pan-demographic perimeters of the Panthers fan base, there is only one game Jamie Dixon can win — the one that puts Pitt in the Final Four.

Anything else, wrongly enough, will reek of disappointment. Such is the price of consistent excellence without ultimate validation.

“We need that big run in the tournament to satisfy people,” Sachse said. “In the city of Pittsburgh they’re used to championships. They have a lot of them, and, I think, in a lot of ways, Pitt’s in the shadow of a lot of the professional teams because they haven’t had that level of success in terms of winning a regional final, winning a national championship since the football team did in ’76.

“I’m always gonna have their back 100 percent, but we really do need a big run.”

Failing that, of course, have a hot dog.

Gene Collier:

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