A season that started with so much promise for Pitt has slipped to the point that the Panthers now have no guarantees.
Since a 16-1 start that included wins in its first four ACC contests, Pitt is 6-7 with losses in four of its past six games and six of its past eight. The Panthers have slid from NCAA shoo-in to bubble status.
Despite six defeats by a combined 20 points, including last-second losses on buzzer-beating 3-pointers by Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, Pitt’s latest loss was its most demoralizing.
It came in record fashion as T.J. Warren poured in a Petersen Events Center-record 41 points on Pitt in N.C. State’s 74-67 victory Monday while the Panthers had their worst rebounding effort under Jamie Dixon. They finished with 23 rebounds, the least in Dixon’s tenure, and their two offensive boards were the lowest in school history since the NCAA started keeping the statistic in 1986-87.
“To lose this way is hard to fathom,” Dixon said. “I don’t know how you can get two offensive rebounds in a game, get 23 rebounds. I don’t know how that’s possible. We’ve got to go to work and figure it out going forward.”
Because of a weak non-conference schedule and lack of wins over NCAA tourney-caliber opponents, Pitt (22-8, 10-7) could end up on the outside looking in without a win Saturday at Clemson (19-10, 10-7). The Panthers won the first meeting, 76-43, Jan. 21, but the Tigers have won four of their last five and are tied with Pitt for fifth place in the ACC.
Dixon called Pitt’s resume “unique,” noting that six of the Panthers’ eight losses came to teams ranked in the AP top 15.
“It’s funny. Every year at this time, no matter where you’re at, you’re always trying to get a higher seed or keep the one you’re at,” Dixon said after Pitt’s 66-59 victory at Boston College on Feb. 26. “We’ve been going through that for years. It’s a pretty normal time. You’re always fighting to hang onto whatever seed you’ve got or whatever move to get into the tournament or hold onto a No. 1 seed. We’ve been all different situations. That’s what we’ve been battling. We understand that.
“Winning the games you’re supposed to is not always done. That’s why teams that do that are rewarded.”
What’s more troubling to Dixon is that Pitt lost more games at home than it won in ACC play, and will finish with a better road record. Petersen Events Center once was one of the most intimidating venues in college basketball, as the Panthers had winning streaks of 34 and 31 games at the 12,508-seat arena. But they have now lost back-to-back home games against NCAA bubble teams in Florida State and N.C. State.
“This is obviously hard to take,” Dixon said. “To be 6-2 on the road and 4-5 at home is a rare occurrence, but that’s where we’re at so we’ve got to go play well at Clemson. That’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Looking back, Pitt’s season is one defined by close losses. Since a 59-54 loss at Syracuse Jan. 18 that saw Tyler Ennis score six points in the final 1:49, the Panthers suffered only one double-digit defeat: an 80-65 loss to Duke Jan. 27 at the Pete. The other losses were to Virginia by three on Brogdon’s buzzer-beating 3; to Syracuse by two on Ennis’ 35-foot runner; at North Carolina by four; to Florida State by five; and, on Monday night, to N.C. State by seven.
“We’ve lost close games we just didn’t finish off,” Dixon said. “We’ve focused a lot on the end of the games, but we’ve got to do things better all the way through.”
The losses to Syracuse, North Carolina and Florida State came in succession, as Pitt’s shooting suffered a cold spell. Through the first seven ACC games, of which the Panthers won six, they shot 50.4 percent from the field; over the next seven, they shot 37 percent and went 2-5.
“To lose three games in a row is unheard of in Pittsburgh basketball,” redshirt junior shooting guard Cameron Wright said. “We don’t lose games back-to-back-to-back. That’s what we were saying: We need to get back to playing winning basketball.”
To do that, Dixon stressed, the Panthers have to return to the principles upon which the program was built. He has long preached defense and rebounding, yet seven of Pitt’s eight losses came when opponents shot 40 percent or better from the field.
Warren was 16 of 22 from the field, mixing seven layups with three 3-pointers, and torched Pitt whether it was playing man-to-man or zone defense.
“We played pretty much our principles on him,” Pitt fifth-year senior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “He shot over us. He made everything. He was hot. He had layups most of the time. When you have layups, everything else just seemed easier.”
There’s a reason Dixon demanded that rebounding was the issue: N.C. State outright dominated the boards, with a 35-23 edge. The Wolfpack also scored 32 points in the paint, outscoring Pitt, 16-0, on second-chance points.
“We have to out-rebound people,” Dixon said. “I’ve said that all year long. … Half our games we got outrebounded, and what I’d say constantly, constantly – everybody else would say we missed a shots or didn’t do this or get in our offense – but, at the end of the day, it’s because we get outrebounded. This, again, was the case.
“We don’t seem to get the message across that the rebounding is what comes short. Cincinnati, we were talking about our offense. We got beat on the boards. That was two, three months ago. The message is not getting across.”
In a season of last-second losses, time is running out for the Panthers.
Panthers Add Juco Center
Pitt added a shot-blocking presence when Tyrone Haughton, 6-foot-9 center at Iowa Western Community College, made a verbal commitment to Pitt Tuesday during an official visit.
Haughton attended Pitt’s home finale against N.C. State Monday night, tweeting about the town’s hospitality, the Oakland Zoo student section and that he loved his visit, the team and coaching staff.
“Everything is just too perfect at Pitt; I really love it,” Haughton told Panther-Lair.com, a Pitt-based Rivals.com site. “My mom was with me and she loved it, too. I mean, I knew that it was going to be really good because their fans have a lot of pride, but it still caught me off guard. The fans show a lot of love.”
A Miami native who Rivals.com ranked a four-star recruit at Dr. Krop High School, Haughton originally signed with South Carolina but spent the past two seasons at Iowa Western in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
After blocking 112 shots as a freshman – including 12 in a game against Cloud Count – Haughton finished his career as the school’s career leader in blocked shots (185). That made it difficult for him to watch Pitt lose to N.C. State, 74-67, when the Wolfpack scored 32 points in the paint.
“It was crazy, sitting there watching the game,” Haughton said. “They played well, but it was tough to see them lose like that. I feel like I could have blocked a lot of those shots and the rebounding was a major factor in the game.”
Haughton can sign a national letter of intent with Pitt in April, joining a 2014 recruiting class that features former Beaver Falls star Sheldon Jeter, a 6-8 forward who transferred from Vanderbilt; Hampton 6-8 forward Ryan Luther; and 6-11 center Shaquille Doorson of The Netherlands. The big question will be where Pitt finds scholarships for everyone, given that it loses only two players – fifth-year seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna – to graduation.
“All of the players and coaches made me feel real comfortable. I felt like I was already part of the family,” Haughton told Panther-lair.com. “There was just such a positive vibe around campus. I actually felt like a celebrity and the fans showed me a lot of love and support. They made me feel welcomed and a part of the Zoo. That was as much as fun as I have had in a long time.”