Ron Cook: Pitt must work to make NCAA field

Is it just me or does it seem as if the Pitt basketball team is trying to play its way out of the NCAA tournament?

OK, that question wasn't phrased quite properly. No one is doubting the effort of the Pitt players. They are playing hard, from start to finish every game, the way Jamie Dixon's teams always do. It's their results that are lacking. Four losses in six games with the two wins against Miami and Virginia Tech during that stretch are underwhelming, at best. It's the wrong time of the season to be trending down. It's to the point the tournament bid that seemed so automatic for Pitt just a few weeks ago no longer is a sure thing.

Yes, Pitt is in if the season ended today. It has 20 wins. It still is in fifth place in the ACC even if it no longer is a contender for the league's regular-season title, as it once appeared to be. Its RPI remains in the low 30s. Teams usually don't have to worry until they drop into the 40s.

But the season doesn't end today. Five games remain plus the ACC tournament. Maybe Pitt doesn't have to win all five, but it wouldn't hurt to go 4-1. Just to be sure. Just to show the selection committee that it has found a remedy for its midseason slump.

Pitt needed to beat Syracuse or North Carolina last week to strengthen its resume. The harsh truth for the Panthers after losing both games is that they will go the entire regular season without defeating a really good team. Their best win came in November against Stanford, which has an RPI in the upper 40s.

The good news for Pitt is it has no bad losses. That will change if it loses one of its final five games. None of its remaining opponents -- Florida State, Boston College, Notre Dame, North Carolina State or Clemson -- has a winning record in ACC play.

That doesn't mean the games will be easy. Pitt has lost five in a row and six of seven against Notre Dame. It has North Carolina State at home, but Petersen Events Center no longer is such an intimidating venue for opposing teams. Pitt has lost or played poorly in its past four home games. Beyond that, North Carolina State almost won Saturday at Syracuse. Pitt finishes the regular season at Clemson, which nearly beat Virginia Saturday.

It's also fair to wonder about Pitt's level of confidence. It was blown out in the second half by a clearly superior Duke team Jan. 27. Its next three losses to Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina were remarkably similar in that Pitt had a chance to win each game but failed in the final few minutes.

Pitt doesn't play again until Sunday night when it has Florida State at home. The rest should help Talib Zanna, who has been playing on a bad ankle. But it's hard to say if his ankle or North Carolina's formidable size bothered him more Saturday. He made just 2 of 11 shots and had five points and eight rebounds after getting 16 points and 14 rebounds in the game before against Syracuse.

The rest also should benefit Lamar Patterson. He has continued to play despite a sore thumb with mixed results. Regardless if he's healthy, which he insists, he has to be a force down the stretch for Pitt to score enough points to win. In Pitt's eight ACC wins, Patterson shot 47.1 percent from the field and averaged 18.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. In its five ACC losses, he shot 31 percent and averaged 14.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He missed a wide-open 3-point shot late against North Carolina that would have tied the score. That's a shot that a big-time player has to make.

Bracketologists have Pitt as a No. 7 seed for the NCAA tournament. A strong finish could move the Panthers to a better number. That's important because the program has never won a tournament game against a higher seed under Dixon. It's easy to see Pitt being a one-and-done unless it starts making significant improvement.

That's if Pitt gets into the tournament.

Dixon and his players shouldn't take anything for granted.

Plenty of work remains to be done before the NCAA field is announced March 16.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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