Ron Cook: No excuses, it's Round of 8 or bust

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Detroit or bust?

No, that's a bit too harsh. It's unfair to demand that Pitt get to the Final Four, just as it's unfair to demand it of Louisville, North Carolina, Connecticut or any of the other teams on your NCAA bracket sheet. The odds against it are staggering. There is just too much parity in college basketball. There are too many good teams that can beat your team in a one-and-done tournament. A bad bounce here or a tough referee's call there, and it all could end quickly for even the best group of players.

But the Round of 8?

That's definitely fair to expect of this Pitt team.

Anything less will mean this season will be judged as a failure.

I know, "failure" is an awfully strong word. Pitt had another phenomenal regular season, going 28-3 before a disheartening loss to West Virginia Thursday night in the Big East Conference tournament and providing even more thrills than it usually does. It never disappointed the home fans, winning every game at the Petersen Events Center -- 19 in all -- to run its record in the grand building to 115-10. It made it to No. 1 in the polls -- twice, actually -- for the first time in school history. It also beat a No. 1 team -- twice, actually -- for the first time, each of those wins against powerful Connecticut.

But Pitt's program has grown to the point that regular-season success no longer is enough. "Nothing is ever enough," coach Jamie Dixon said, somewhat wryly. Some might look at that as a curse, but it's really a blessing. Dixon acknowledged as much. It means Pitt lives in the same neighborhood with the North Carolinas, Dukes, UCLAs, Connecticuts and a handful of other basketball powerhouses.

That's a very exclusive neighborhood.

"As you build that monster, the monster has to be fed," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun once said famously of the extraordinary expectations that all big-time programs face.

It isn't easy, of course. Pitt knows all about that. This is the eighth consecutive season it is going to the NCAA tournament. It will be trying again to get by the Round of 16 for the first time.

This has to be the year.

This has to be the year that Pitt leaves us all sated.

A national championship is not out of the question.

I don't know what happened against West Virginia. I didn't recognize that Pitt team. The Panthers usually roll at Madison Square Garden, but they looked unprepared to play, which is unusual for a Dixon squad. That won't happen again. The players looked full of themselves, as if they didn't think they could lose. A good West Virginia team painfully taught them otherwise by giving them a 74-60 licking. I'm thinking it was a valuable lesson.

Certainly, I'm not going to jump off the Pitt bandwagon after one rotten night on Broadway.

Pitt has the players to make a deep NCAA run, better players than it has had since at least the Charles Smith/Jerome Lane teams of the late 1980s. Seniors Sam Young and Levance Fields have played in seven tournament games and won't be surprised by anything that's ahead. All of the key players but junior-college transfer Jermaine Dixon and freshman Ashton Gibbs have tournament experience. That's invaluable.

Pitt also has a precious No. 1 seed -- another first for the program -- and the best path to follow for a long NCAA trip. Jamie Dixon wasn't always pleased with where the Panthers had been sent in previous tournaments. But he has no gripes about Dayton this weekend and possibly Boston the next.

There won't be any legitimate travel excuses this time.

There won't be any legitimate excuses, period.

Shame on Pitt if it doesn't beat East Tennessee State in the first game and the Oklahoma State-Tennessee winner in the second.

For that matter, shame on Pitt if it doesn't win its third-round game in Boston, probably against Xavier or Florida State.

That hardly seems like too much to ask of a No. 1 seed.

And after that? Well, anything could happen in a Pitt-Duke or Pitt-Villanova East regional final. The season won't be a failure if Pitt loses that game, but -- what the heck? -- it's nice to think it will take care of business. Who knows when it will be a top seed again? Or when it will have a better opportunity to make the Final Four?

"We're going to Detroit. We've worked too hard to lose now," Pitt center DeJuan Blair said.

That was before the doomed trip to New York, but Blair didn't back off much last night after the brackets were released. The loss to West Virginia? What loss to West Virginia?

"I guarantee you'll see a whole different Pitt team, starting Friday," Blair said. "We're ready to go to work."

The job should take at least two weeks to finish.

Let me rephrase that:

The job had better take at least two weeks to complete.

And three weeks would be even better.



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