Pitt Men: Sweet 16 losses keep Panthers from elite discussion
DeJuan Blair reacts beside teammate Brad Wanamaker after getting a basket late in the second half Sunday against Oklahoma State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Dayton, Ohio.
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There is a graphic prominently displayed in Pitt's postseason media guide. The bold print headline above it reads: "College basketball's best programs over the last eight years"
It's a who's who list of the elite in college basketball. Pitt is near the top of the list. Only Memphis, Kansas and Duke have won more games than Pitt since the 2001-02 season. The Panthers are fourth with 219 victories in that span.
But of the top 13 teams in the graphic, Pitt is the only one that has not made it past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Most have made it to at least one Final Four in that time and four of the programs have won national championships.
Pitt is in the Round of 16 for the fifth time in the past eight seasons, but the Panthers need to take the next step this week to truly join the college basketball elite.
While the likes of George Mason, Davidson, Xavier and Oregon have gone further than Pitt in recent years, the Panthers always have hit a road block in the third round of the tournament.
"We've done some good things," senior point guard Levance Fields said. "We made it to No. 1. We beat No. 1. But we'll keep hearing about [the Sweet 16] until we do it."
Kent State, Marquette, Oklahoma State and UCLA have denied the Panthers in seasons past. Now Xavier, a team coached by former Pitt star point guard Sean Miller, stands in the way.
No. 1 seed Pitt and No. 4 seed Xavier play for the right to reach the Elite Eight at 7:27 p.m. Thursday at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.
Pitt, which has never beaten higher than a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament the past seven seasons, has been ranked at the top of the polls and is one of the favorites to win the national championship, but the Panthers know all too well how those dreams can die well before the Final Four. Pitt players are determined that the Sweet 16 won't be another Groundhog's Day for the program.
"All we're focused on is the next opponent," senior forward Sam Young said. "That's the only thing on everyone's mind. We're not saying we're going to get to a Final Four or win a national championship. We have learned from that.
"When I hear someone talking about the Final Four I stop them right there. We have to worry about the Sweet 16. We can't worry about any other game. We have to worry about today's game. If we don't pay attention to who we're playing now we might be watching the Final Four."
There was some looking ahead last year, Young admitted. Entering the NCAA tournament a year ago, Pitt was playing as well as any team in the country. The Panthers had won the Big East tournament and as a No. 4 seed were a popular pick to reach the Final Four.
But No. 5 seed Michigan State stunned the Panthers in the second round. That loss, as well as NCAA heartbreak stories passed down from previous generations of players, serve as lessons learned as the Panthers prepare for the third-round game against Xavier.
"I heard locker-room stories when I first got here about how they overlooked a couple of teams they were supposed to beat," Young said. "If we're not supposed to lose to a team we have to focus on the team and make sure we don't lose to them.
"I felt like last year we overlooked some teams. It kind of bit us in the butt. Now I'm not overlooking anybody. When we scout teams, I'm paying attention. I know every guy's every move. I want to put myself in a position when I could be successful."
The top four seeds in the East Region advanced to the Sweet 16. In the other third-round matchup, No. 2 seed Duke will play No. 3 seed Villanova after the Pitt-Xavier game.
Pitt's road to the Sweet 16 through Dayton, Ohio, was not easy. The Panthers had two tough games in the first and second rounds against East Tennessee State and Oklahoma State.
No. 16 seed East Tennessee State trailed by just two points with less than four minutes remaining before the Panthers finally pulled away for a 72-62 victory. In a second-round victory Sunday against Oklahoma State, Pitt trailed by one with less than four minutes remaining. The Panthers outscored the Cowboys, 12-4, over the final 3:17 to claim an 84-76 victory.
"There's a little bit of a sigh of relief, a little bit," senior forward Tyrell Biggs said. "But we still have to stay on our toes."
Xavier was the regular-season champion of the Atlantic 10 and has been where Pitt wants to go. The Musketeers advanced to the Elite Eight last season before losing to UCLA. They also made the Elite Eight in 2004.
The Musketeers defeated No. 13 seed Portland State and No. 12 seed Wisconsin to reach the Sweet 16.
First Published March 24, 2009 12:00 am