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January 19, 2009

Is this Pitt team really better? Time will tell

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Now that Pittsburgh's first stint atop the national polls in school history has ended, the Panthers are counting on the experience to help them make history again in March.

Although Pitt owns the fifth-best winning percentage in the nation since the start of the 2001-02 season, the Panthers haven't been able to translate that regular-season success into postseason glory. Pitt has reached the regional semifinals four times during that stretch, but the Panthers haven't gone beyond the Sweet 16 since 1974.

Lately, even the Sweet 16 has been beyond the Panthers' grasp. Pitt's 65-54 loss to Michigan State in March represented the second time in the past three seasons that the Panthers had dropped a second-round tournament game to a worse-seeded team.

What's the difference with this season's team?

"For the most part, we don't really know yet, to be honest," point guard Levance Fields said Saturday night after the Panthers fell 69-63 to Louisville for their first loss of the season. "It's still early. We just feel we can get better."

The Panthers have plenty of reasons to feel they're already better than the teams that fell short in March.

They're older: Forward Sam Young's decision to return for his senior season gives Pittsburgh a talented trio (Young, Fields and center DeJuan Blair) that can compare favorably with the top three players at just about any school in the nation.

Young, Blair and Fields combine to average 42.9 points, 20.8 rebounds and 9.9 assists. They also were the three best players on Pitt's roster last season, and their experience and work ethic have helped them symbolize the Panthers' blue-collar mentality.

"This is probably the deepest, most physically talented Pittsburgh team that we've faced," Louisville coach Rick Pitino had said on the eve of his team's upset victory.

They're healthier: Fields missed 12 games last season with a fractured left foot, and the Panthers weren't the same without him. Pittsburgh went 19-4 in the games he started and 8-6 when he was sidelined or limited to a reserve role.

Now that Fields has returned to full strength, he has established himself as one of the nation's most efficient point guards. Fields averages 7.1 assists and has four times as many assists as turnovers.

"When you've got a point guard like Levance, you go into every game thinking you're going to win,'' sophomore guard Brad Wanamaker said.

Models of consistency
Pitt has reached the NCAA tournament seven consecutive seasons and has advanced to the Sweet 16 in four of those seasons, though the Panthers haven't gone any further during that stretch. Here's a look at Pitt's season-by-season results since beginning its run of tournament bids. The team that eliminated Pittsburgh and the score of the game is in parentheses.
Year Record NCAA Tourney Finish
2001-0229-6Sweet 16 (Kent State 78-73)
2002-0328-5Sweet 16 (Marquette 77-74)
2003-0431-5Sweet 16 (Oklahoma State 63-51)
2004-0520-9First round (Pacific 79-71)
2005-0625-8Second round (Bradley 72-66)
2006-0729-8Sweet 16 (UCLA 64-55)
2007-0827-10Second round (Michigan State 65-54)
They're tougher: Pitt entered the weekend leading the nation in rebound margin, thanks in large part to Blair, a 6-foot-7 forward who has capitalized on his 86-inch wingspan to become a terror on the boards.

Blair burst onto the scene as a freshman by averaging 9.1 rebounds. He has increased that figure to 12.8 this season, including 6.6 on the offensive end.

"He's a beast," Louisville forward Earl Clark said. "He's got good hands and just goes up strong."

They're stingier: Pitt is known for its suffocating defense, but the Panthers have turned it up a notch this season. Opponents are shooting just 37.8 percent, which puts the Panthers on pace to deliver their best field-goal percentage defense since the 1962-63 team allowed foes to connect on 36.9 percent of their shots.

But are they better? Only time will tell.

As good as Pitt has looked the first two months of the season, the Panthers' loss to Louisville exposed a couple of flaws.

Pitt was 9-for-16 on free throws to continue a season-long slump from the line. The Panthers have made just 65.1 percent of their free-throw attempts this season to rank 12th in the Big East.

The Panthers also must do a better job of preventing opponents from getting to the foul line. Blair and starting forward Tyrell Biggs both fouled out of the Louisville game. Blair played just 20 minutes and was on the bench with four fouls while the Cardinals erased a 10-point deficit in the second half. Pitt has plenty of depth 11 players average at least 8.9 minutes per game but the Panthers aren't nearly as dangerous without Blair on the floor.

Top-five program
Pitt has the fifth-best winning percentage of any team in the nation since the start of the 2001-02 season. Here's a look at the teams with the top 10 records during that span.
Team Record Pct.
Memphis212-43 .831
Kansas 218-48.820
Florida 198-59.770
Source: Pittsburgh sports information department
Coach Jamie Dixon mentioned the importance of staying out of foul trouble and making free throws when he discussed what the Panthers would learn from their first loss of the season.

"You learn from everything," Dixon said. "You learn from wins. You learn from losses. We learned from our 16 wins. We've got to learn from our one loss. And I think we will. That's something we've done. It's been a trademark of our team."

Of course, the Big East Conference has a way of forcing teams to learn on the fly.

Instead of having a few days off to lick their wounds or getting back on the court against an inferior opponent, the Panthers will waste no time finding out how much the loss to Louisville has taught them. Pitt must prove itself all over again Monday night when it plays host to Syracuse, which is coming off a 93-74 rout of Notre Dame.

The Panthers welcome the challenge.

"Obviously it's great to be No. 1 with the whole hoopla behind it, but we knew the conference was going to be tough," Fields said. "We didn't feel like we were going to lose, nor do we feel losing is a good thing, but it happened. Now we have to turn it around and get it done on Monday."

Louisville on Saturday. Syracuse on Monday. It's the kind of schedule that offers the Panthers the ideal preparation for the Final Four.

Now they just have to get there.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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