Thursday, March 17, 2011

Panthers fired up

Tourney loss motivates Pitt



Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

Pittsburgh’s Gilbert Brown (5) drops in a layup between Villanova’s Antonio Pena (0) and Mouphtaou Yarou in the first half of their game Mach 5 in Pittsburgh.

PIttsburgh at a glance

Coach: Jamie Dixon, 215-59 overall, 215-59 at Pittsburgh.

Best win: Jan. 17 vs. then-No. 4 Syracuse, 74-66.

Best player: Junior guard Ashton Gibbs, 16.7 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.3 rpg.

Weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation: 0.

NCAA Tourney matchup: No. 16 UNC-Asheville on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

For some, it was Pittsburgh — not Kansas, not Duke, not even Ohio State — that entered last week’s conference tournament fun as the most complete team in the country.

But then the Panthers lost to UConn in the early rounds of the Big East tournament, and questions began to pop up.

Is Pitt really that good? Do the Panthers (27-5) still deserve a No. 1 seed? Should they be penalized for losing to the team that went on to win the Big East tourney? Should they be penalized for becoming the latest in a long line of victims harmed by Kemba Walker, the player many believe is the best in the country?

“One game doesn’t change what we did the other 31,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who led the Panthers to the regular-season Big East title. “We’re obviously excited about the No. 1 seed, but honestly, at this point, it doesn’t mean a lot. What we’ve done in the past is beyond us. I’m proud of what we did, but now it’s a matter of going forward and being a better team.”

In some ways, the loss to UConn actually might have helped the Panthers, who earned a No. 1 seed for just the second time in school history (2009).

For starters, they gained an extra dose of motivation out of hearing the cries from the doubters the rest of the week. And, the time off gave Pitt a chance to rest, heal and focus on what lies ahead. That, if you ask them, is making a deep run in the tournament.

“We’re ready to come out and perform,” Pitt center Gary McGhee said. “We know that we have to win games — no matter what seed that we are, we have to go out there and win games. We’re looking forward to going out there, getting a win and starting it off right.”

Added guard Brad Wannamaker, asked about his team’s reaction to earning the No. 1 seed: “We thought we would drop to the No. 2 or 3 seed just because of how we went out in the first round of the Big East Tournament. We’re excited to have the No. 1 seed, but we have to get the work done in the tournament. We thought things would work out, but we didn’t think we would be the No. 1 seed. We had some faith that we would, but we had a lot of doubt that we wouldn’t.”

With the disappointment and drama now behind, Pitt seems focused on playing like the team that spent the bulk of the season ranked in the top 5. The biggest thing that can help Pitt do that is the one thing this team has hung its hat on since Dixon’s arrival eight years ago.

“We pride ourselves on being the best in the country in rebounding,” Dixon said. “And when we don’t out-rebound people, it catches up to us. When we have done that, we’ve been pretty good, hence the No. 1 seed. I’m excited; the guys are ready and had a good practice (Sunday).”

With the top seed comes a little extra burden to perform. The Panthers struggled with that in the conference tournament. And they’re looking for redemption now that the big one has arrived.

“I guess you can say that it puts pressure on you,” McGhee said. “My sophomore year, we had the No. 1 seed, and we didn’t get to the Final Four. As you know we got beat in the Elite Eight. It’s definitely something that we want to accomplish. We like the pressure. We want the pressure on us. This is a very good team. We want to get to our goal, and that is Houston and the Final Four.”

UConn coach Jim Calhoun, no stranger to Final Fours himself, is one of those singing Pitt’s praises.

“Pittsburgh is one of the best teams in the county,” Calhoun said. “Not only in the conference, but in the country. They’re a terrific team. They’re very, very good.”


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