Pitt Basketball Fooled Us All With Marginal Improvement

(Associated Press)

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I had reached a level of excitement over the Pitt basketball program that I hadn’t had for a few seasons.  My excitement had peaked after Pitt easily took care of Louisville at home to the tune of a 65-53 victory over their old Big East rivals.  Sure, they had just taken a double-digit loss to, also old Big East rival, Syracuse, but some teams are just bad against the zone defense, right?  Pitt was still playing exponentially better than they had been at the beginning of the season.  

After taking embarrassing losses to both UMBC and Monmouth at the Pete, what used to be hallowed grounds, the expectations for this team were at an all-time low.  There was murmuring of another season without an ACC win like the dog days of Kevin Stallings.  Their offense was inept and the turnovers were adding up. Plus, starting guard Nike Sibande had suffered a season ending injury before the season even started, and sharp-shooter Ithiel Horton was suspended for legal charges.

However, after a win against St. John’s at the Mecca, Madison Square Garden, and very close losses to each of their first three conference opponents, this young Panther team was gaining some momentum.  Surely, these first three ACC games, plus a one-point loss to Minnesota, could have went either way.

Then their first conference win against Boston College showed that maybe this Panther team had a chance to finish in the middle of the pack of the ACC.  Especially with Horton returning to the lineup and adding an extra dimension to this, still struggling, Pitt offense. 

Unfortunately, despite the win against Boston College and then the one mentioned earlier against Louisville, Horton had been re-suspended on refiled legal charges.  The Pitt offense was back to feeding John Hugley inside as their sole offensive game plan.  However, this team had shown fight and I was receiving texts again about Pitt Basketball for the first time in quite a while.  It also became appointment television again.

So going into a January 19th game at the Pete against Virginia, excitement for the program had peaked for many of us.  We tuned in for a 9pm tip-off (why are two Eastern time zone teams playing at 9pm on a Wednesday???) with high hopes for a third conference win and renewed energy.  Well, it didn’t last as the slow pace of the game, and the late start time, lulled most of us to sleep before we could see the Panthers suffer a five-point loss at home to the Cavaliers.  It looked like same old Panthers with no real offensive game plan and the inability to work the ball inside to Hugley when it counted most.

Then, as excitement began to plateau, the program took a free fall off a cliff.  In a game at Clemson this past Saturday, Pitt was held to under 50 points in a humiliating 27-point loss.  It wasn’t like the Panthers had walked into Cameron indoors and suffered this loss to Duke with Christian Laettner and JJ Reddick suiting up in their prime.  This was a 27-point loss to the 10-8 Clemson Tigers, who had come into the game 2-5 in conference play. 

We were fooled.  The Pitt Panthers had improved, and it fooled us all.  Because of course they had improved.  The team had reached such a low point that the only way to go was up.  And we fell for it.  

I was ready to apologize to Jeff Capel and deem him the right man for the job because this young team showed some spark.  I was wrong.  They didn’t show spark.  They just had nowhere to go but up. 

Also, the difference between good teams and bad teams are the results of close games.  The Pittsburgh Penguins can play terrible hockey, and still find a way to scrape out close wins.  The Pitt Panthers can play great basketball, relative to their current standards, yet still lose by one or two points.  That is the difference between good and bad teams.  The Penguins are good, Pitt basketball is not. 

So despite feeling defrauded, I will still support this Pitt Panther basketball squad, just with much lower expectations.  They are a bottom-end ACC team with little expectation of winning, but sweet little surprises when they do.  Also, Capel is not the right man for the job, but that is an article for another day.