Cook: No. 1 ranking would be huge for Panthers

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It's not hard to imagine the throbbing scene inside the Oakland home shared by Pitt basketball players Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin. Close your eyes and you almost can see the two and most of their teammates, huddled around their big-screen television Saturday night, cheering wildly as Kansas upset No. 1 Florida in overtime. No. 2 North Carolina had lost to Gonzaga earlier in the week. Surely, No. 3 Pitt would take that final big step and climb to No. 1.

"It was a real exciting time around here," Pitt center Aaron Gray said the other night. "We thought we had a pretty good chance at being No. 1."

It didn't happen, which is unfortunate, for a number of reasons. UCLA jumped over Pitt to No. 1, leaving the Panthers at No. 2 in The Associated Press poll.

In one way -- the most important way -- it was no big deal. College basketball isn't like college football. In football, a No. 1 ranking gets you into the national championship game. In basketball, it's not so important because of the NCAA tournament. Pitt will get its chance to win it all in March if it's ranked No. 1, No. 2, No. 10 or No. 20.

But in another way, it stung that Pitt was passed over. No. 1 would have been an incredible achievement, one that shouldn't be taken lightly. Pitt has been No. 2 seven times over the years, but never No. 1. Doing just about anything for the first time is special. How cool would it have been for the Pitt players to be able to hold up one finger and say, "We're No. 1!"? How cool would it have been for the rest of us to enjoy it?

"Real cool, but, at the same time, it's motivation for us," Gray said. "You get rewarded for being a big-time program. Maybe we're not quite there yet like a Kentucky or a Duke. But if we keep working, slowly, but surely, we're going to get there."

Gray has the right approach.

So does Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, for that matter.

Dixon's predecessor, Ben Howland, didn't exactly embrace the chance to be No. 1 when he was at Pitt. He almost became stressed when his 2002-03 team made it to No. 2 in late-December before losing at Georgia, then again in late-January before losing at Syracuse. He didn't want the extra pressure on a program that was just beginning to experience top-level success. He didn't want the added expectations. That same season, Alabama made it to No. 1 for the first time in its history, then lost seven of its final 12 regular-season games. People looked at Alabama and saw a flop. Howland looked at it and saw a pretty good team. Who needs that aggravation?

Coincidentally, Howland now coaches at UCLA, where, considering the school's fabulous history in basketball and because UCLA made it to the championship game at the Final Four last year, he's presumably a bit more relaxed.

Dixon is a little different than his old boss. He would welcome Pitt being No. 1, be thrilled by it, actually. He knows the prestige that would bring to his program and to Pitt. He also knows he has a veteran team that could handle the extra pressure and the increased expectations. As Gray put it: "We know what we need to do. We're not going to pat ourselves on the back for what we've done. We're going to work on what we need to improve."

Pitt is No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today poll behind Ohio State and UCLA but is expected to move up to No. 2 next week if it takes care of business Sunday at Auburn. No. 1 Ohio State was beaten Wednesday night at North Carolina.

"No. 2 isn't bad," Dixon said, grinning.

No. 2 is terrific.

But that's not what makes Dixon most proud. It's Pitt's consistency. It has been the Big East Conference's winningest program the past five-plus seasons with a 140-33 record. It has been ranked in the Top 25 in 81 of the past 90 national polls.

"Look at the teams up there. It's the same teams that have been there for 25 years," Dixon said. "We're the only new team in the group.

"A lot of programs do it for half a year or a year or even two years. We want to do it for the long haul."

This Pitt team -- extraordinary not just because of its talent, but also its depth -- ultimately will be judged by how it does in the NCAA tournament. Pitt is just one of 15 programs to receive a tournament bid in each of the past five seasons, but it almost always underachieved once it got there. It didn't make it past the third round, losing to mid-major teams four times.

But in the short term, it's going to be fun to see if Pitt can get to No. 1 before it loses a game. That first loss could come Dec. 16 at No. 12 Wisconsin or Dec. 21 against Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City or maybe Jan. 4 at No. 15 Syracuse in what figures to be a tremendous Big East opening game. But it surely will come. No team has gone unbeaten since Indiana in 1976.

No, it won't be a big deal if Pitt doesn't get to No. 1.

But it will be huge if it does.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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