It wasn’t that long ago people were talking about Pitt winning the ACC regular-season championship and about Lamar Patterson being conference Player of the Year. And they were being serious.
But that was before an outbreak of ugly throwback basketball by the Panthers in general and Patterson in particular. This epidemic of poor play threatens to push Pitt, despite a 20-4 record, in the direction of the dreaded NCAA tournament bubble.
After losing consecutive games at home to Duke and Virginia, Pitt has won two in a row but did nothing to elevate its status with shabby performances in an overtime win at Miami Wednesday and a double overtime win over Virginia Tech yesterday at the Petersen Events Center. Miami (2-8) and Virginia Tech (1-10) are 13th and 15th, respectively, in the 15-team league.
With games against No. 2 Syracuse at home on Wednesday and at North Carolina Saturday, Pitt faces a critical week. As Jeff Borzello wrote at CBSSports.com after the Panthers struggled to beat Virginia Tech, ''An 0-2 week against Syracuse and North Carolina could mean the Panthers are in serious bubble trouble come March.’’
Pitt has gone from a team threatening to crash the top 10 to one that deserves to fall out of the rankings this week based on those miserable performances against Miami, 2-8 in conference play, and Virginia Tech, 1-10. The Panthers have failed to break 50 points in regulation play in their past three games.
Patterson played with a thumb injury against Virginia Tech that, according to Post-Gazette Pitt beat writer Paul Zeise, ''made gripping the ball difficult.’’ His injury was obvious from his play. Unbelievably, he did not score in regulation and finished with five points on 1-for-9 shooting, including 0-for-6 from beyond the 3-point line.
Patterson was on a skid before he injured his thumb. In his past four games, he is shooting 14-for-51 from the field, which is a terrible 28 percent. It has been much the same for the entire team, which is 71-205, 35 percent, over the past four games.
With center Talib Zanna, the team’s No. 2 scorer, hampered by an ankle injury, Pitt’s lack of depth is becoming more and more a problem. It’s not like coach Jamie Dixon had a lot of options off his bench. There’s no one to replace Patterson, who leads the team in scoring and assists. The nominal replacement for Zanna is Derrick Randall. But he played only three minutes yesterday and just nine in the past three games.
If the Panthers do fall into that NCAA tournament bubble, their extremely short list of big wins will be held against them. They have one win over a team in the RPI top 50 -- Stanford, on a neutral court in November. They've lost four other games against top 50 teams and probably have only two more on their schedule -- Syracuse and North Carolina.
The season is unraveling. The Pitt team that trailed Syracuse by one with a minute remaining at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 18 has vanished. That was the team that looked like it could contend for the ACC title. The opportunity for the Panthers to recapture their season is there for the taking this week. It just doesn’t look like they’re up for the challenge.