PITTSBURGH — It’s too bad Rick Pitino isn’t on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
Even after losing their third straight and fifth game in their last eight following Sunday’s 75-73 setback to No. 18 Louisville at the raucous Petersen Events Center, the slumping Pitt Panthers received a glowing endorsement from Pitino.
Asked if Pitt fits in the field of 64, the Louisville coach didn’t hesitate.
“No question about it,” he said. “[They’re a] 100 percent lock. I really believe [Pitt] is not going to have anything to worry about.”
Pitino did point out the Panthers’ all-important RPI (Ratings Power Index) stands at 21, adding, “you worry when you’re in the 40s and 50s.”
Pitt, though, needs to stop the freefall or it could headed there. The Panthers have four Big East games remaining — trips to Syracuse and West Virginia sandwiched around home games with Cincinnati on Wednesday and the regular-season finale with DePaul — before the conference tourney.
After charging out of the gate 11-0, the Panthers are now 19-8 and have slipped to 7-7 in a Big East that Pitino said “fries everybody.”
No question, Pitt is singed.
Against the Cardinals, the Panthers didn’t defend (Louisville shot 57 percent for the game, 62.1 percent in a tone-setting first half) or shoot (44 percent) well enough to win. Those factors negated turning the ball over just four times, a statistic that should win every time.
“We’re shooting bricks,” Pitt guard Levance Fields said. “We couldn’t make shots on the perimeter.”
Fields completed his first week following an eight-week absence from a fractured left foot. He hit 4-of-13 from the field and missed all four of his 3-pointers plus his only free throw. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, though, was more encouraged by his floor leader’s 37 minutes, seven assists, three steals and no turnovers.
“I thought Levance was unbelievable,” he said, “and Sam Young [20 points] played about as good a game as he’s played in his career.”
Beyond that, the Panthers got 20 points and 11 rebounds from freshman DeJuan Blair and 11 from Ronald Ramon. But Louisville outscored the Panther reserves 32-7.
Pitt never got in full sync, even attempting a Blair shot in the lane with seven seconds left and the Panthers down 73-70.
“We played well,” Dixon said. “They just played better. We just need to refocus. I feel we’ll improve from here.”
They’ll have to. After looking like a Christmas-time cinch for the Big Dance, the Panthers are now starting to hear how Syracuse didn’t make it last year despite a 10-6 league record.
“We were all shocked when Syracuse didn’t get in,” Pitino said. “I think we’ll have eight-nine teams fighting for it.”
Dixon contends the NCAA is not a distraction.
“We’re trying to look at one game at a time,” he said. “We’ve had success that way.”
There’s no doubt. The only schools with more wins in the last seven years than Pitt are Memphis, Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga, and the Blue Devils are the only team with more Sweet Sixteen appearances (five) over the last six years than Pitt’s four.
And while the Panthers have failed at times to hold their seed and still stalk that elusive Elite Eight appearance, a whole lot of other teams are on that same front porch.
This year, though, Pitt may find itself having to slip in the back door.
“Without question, we’re an NCAA Tournament team, regardless of the last three games,” Fields said. “But maybe they [NCAA] need more proof.”
Either the Panthers are running out of games to provide it or they better beat at least Cincinnati and DePaul and keep their fingers crossed that Pitino is right.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.