Pitt’s round-of-32 game in the NCAA tournament this afternoon against No. 1-seed Florida has been called the biggest in school history. That’s a reach I’m not buying.
It does not begin to compare with the game against Villanova in 2009, when a win would have sent the Panthers to the Final Four. Nor does it rank with the 1974 game against North Carolina State that also would have sent Pitt to the championship weekend.
Some would argue, not me, the Big East championship games in which Pitt has played are bigger than this one.
Regardless of this game’s historical significance, it is a game fraught with importance for the Panthers of 2014 and beyond. A win over the Gators, 33-2, first in the nation, champion of the SEC regular season and postseason tournament and the overall No. 1 seed in this field, would be enormous.
It would mark a return to the national stage for the Panthers, who haven’t won more than one game in the tournament since 2009 when as a No. 1 seed they beat East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State and Xavier before famously losing to Villanova.
It would shake off some of the lingering and harsh criticism of coach Jamie Dixon for his failure to ever beat a top opponent in this event.
Most of all, it would help validate a Pitt season that began with so much promise but became bogged down in midseason and never really escaped that phase. Even while winning six of its most recent eight, Pitt struggled with the likes of Clemson, Notre Dame and Boston College.
Much of that was forgotten with a win over North Carolina and a tough loss to eventual champion Virginia in the ACC tournament. Pitt’s textbook dismantling of Colorado Thursday was the third straight game in which Pitt has played very well.
Whether they can continue at such a level against Florida, which hasn’t lost since Dec. 2, is another matter. The Gators look to be a team without a weakness. Unlike so many teams in the modern era who end up at or near the top of the rankings, Florida is not dominated by one-and-done types. Four of the seven players in coach Bill Donovan’s rotation are seniors. Only one freshman gets significant playing time.
Although Pitt is hardly populated by one-and-done types, it is the Panthers -- often the team with an experience edge on their tournament opponents -- who are the young team in this game. Pitt has two fifth-year seniors in Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, but three of its top seven players are true freshmen and starting point guard James Robinson is a second-year sophomore.
But as always, if Pitt is to do anything it will almost certainly come down to Patterson and Zanna. Although Patterson is the team leader in points and assists and is second in rebounding, it is Zanna who has been doing much of the heavy lifting in recent weeks. He has played well above almost anyone’s expectations. In his past eighth games, Zanna is averaging 16 points and 10.3 rebounds.
It will take the best performances of Zanna and Patterson to get the Panthers past Florida. And even that might not be enough.