Ron Cook: Only thing Pitt basketball has proven is that it's not what it used to be
February 7, 2016 12:00 AM
Pitt's Chris Jones and Virginia's Darius Thompson fight for a rebound in the first half Saturday at Petersen Events Center.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt used to be virtually unbeatable at Petersen Events Center. Not anymore.
Pitt used to be a big-time college basketball program. Not anymore.
The two are related.
Pitt’s 64-50 home loss Saturday to No. 9 Virginia was an accurate reflection of what the program has become. It was Pitt’s third home loss of the season. Pitt wasn’t competitive in any of the defeats, losing by 13 points to Purdue, 17 to N.C. State and now 14 to Virginia. Pitt has lost 12 home games since joining the ACC three years ago and 22 in the past five years.
Pitt lost just 12 times in the first nine years of Petersen Events Center.
It’s no coincidence Pitt has not been much of a program the past five years. Pitt’s 17-5 overall record this season is good, its 6-4 record in the ACC solid. But it still hasn’t beaten a high-quality opponent. It is 0-3 against ranked teams, continuing another ugly trend under Jamie Dixon. Pitt was 37-31 against top-25 teams in Dixon’s first eight seasons, but is 7-24 in the past five. Remarkably, Pitt was 20-9 against top-10 teams in Dixon’s first eight seasons, but is 3-12 in the past five. It’s hard to be encouraged about Pitt’s chances Tuesday night when it plays at No. 17 Miami and next Sunday at No. 2 North Carolina.
Pitt has the look of being just another program these days.
“We’re a good team. We’re fine,” Pitt star Jamel Artis said.
“We can say we’re a great team, but we’ve got to go out there and do it on the court,” Artis said.
And now the harsh truth …
“We didn’t prove nothing yet to nobody,” Artis said.
Pitt still has eight ACC games remaining, plenty of time to salvage its season. But it is no lock to make the NCAA tournament. If it doesn’t make it, that will be three times in the past five years.
Pitt advanced to the NCAAs in each of Dixon’s first eight seasons.
It seems almost funny now, but Pitt’s Sheldon Jeter talked before the Virginia game about how Pitt was going to find out just how good it is. He couldn’t have liked what he learned. Dixon certainly didn’t.
“It’s disappointing to play like we did,” he said.
Virginia appeared to be a decent matchup for Pitt. It is an experienced team that won 30 games and the ACC championship in each of the two previous seasons, but it doesn’t have the big, quick, athletic players that caused Pitt so much trouble in its losses to Louisville, N.C. State and Clemson. Virginia beats you with patience and defense. Pitt was no match for either despite having six days to get ready for the game.
It’s a shame it played out like it did because this could have been such a marvelous day for Pitt. The Oakland Zoo was dressed in full blackout mode, many of the kids waiting hours in the cold to get the better seats. They were ready. The Pitt team was not.
Dixon, as he always does, blamed Pitt’s defense for the loss, saying you can’t allow a team to shoot 48 percent — 56.3 percent on 3s — and force just seven turnovers. But poor offense hurt Pitt just as much. Pitt shot 39.1 percent, including an 0-for-7 game from senior guard James Robinson. But, hey, at least Pitt scored 50 points, thanks to a basket by Ryan Luther with 13 seconds left. Pitt failed to get to 50 in three consecutive losses to Virginia since joining the ACC.
Maybe most troubling, a lack of poise doomed Pitt. The score was tied, 31-31, when Pitt missed a shot by Artis and committed three consecutive turnovers by Artis, Michael Young and Damon Wilson. Virginia pounced, hitting three consecutive 3-point shots and scoring a conventional three-point play. Dixon could do nothing to stop the 12-0 run. Pitt used three timeouts in the first half, two when a player was trapped by the Virginia defense. Just like that, it was 43-31. The game was over.
“We let them get into us,” Artis said. “We’ve got to learn how to [stay in] control when we’re down. When we get down, we try to force shots. We get carried away getting hyped up, we [commit] turnovers and we don’t get back on defense. When we get down, we’ve got to come together and buy in as a team.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett talked of that 12-0 stretch and of the importance of taking the Pitt crowd out of the game. Unlike Dixon, he liked how his team responded to the little adversity it faced.
“You’ve got to show it’s for real. You’ve got to do it in any setting,” Bennett said of winning on the road.
That’s Pitt’s challenge now.
It needs to show it’s for real.
It has shown nothing yet.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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