Eighth seed could be blessing for Pitt in region

Eighth-seeded Pittsburgh will take on ninth-seeded Wichita State on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers defeated Georgetown, which earned a No. 2 seed, by 28 at Georgetown, beat ninth-seeded Villanova twice, split with fourth-seeded Syracuse, split with No. 10 seed Cincinnati and lost to the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Louisville, by three on the road.

Those accomplishments helped Pitt grade out as a No. 4 seed in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, a new ranking method created by the ESPN brass similar to RPI. The slip from a No. 4 seed in the BPI to a No. 8 seed in the actual tournament was the largest of any squad.

When presented with just that information, Pitt fans are probably outraged.

But taking a closer look, the Panthers played their weakest non-conference schedule in recent memory. Michigan was the only non-conference NCAA Tournament team Pitt faced, and the Panthers lost, 67-62. Pitt also played Bethune-Cookman, Kennesaw State and beat Oakland in overtime.

There is no doubt the selection committee punished Pitt for its schedule and its one-and-done performance in the Big East Tournament.

Or did they?

Wichita State has been considered a possible bracket-buster since the preseason polls came out and is ranked No. 37 in RPI and No. 24 in BPI. Pitt is ranked No. 43 in RPI and No. 15 in BPI.

Pitt lost two straight down the stretch, at third-seeded Marquette and at home against seventh-seeded Notre Dame, but the Shockers, out of the Missouri Valley Conference, actually had a three-game losing streak this season. Wichita State lost by 13 at home against Indiana State before falling to Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois on the road.

The Shockers lost three of their last five games and don’t have a precision shooter from beyond the arc, something that has hurt Pitt this season.

Most 8-9 games are coin flips, but on paper, the Panthers seem to be the favorite.

The winner will almost certainly play No. 1 seed Gonzaga. The Zags have played three ranked teams all season and enter the NCAA Tournament with the worst strength of schedule for a No. 1 seed in tournament history. Of the three ranked teams Gonzaga has played, it has lost to two of them (Butler and Illinois, which was No. 13 at the time). The Zags beat No. 22 Oklahoma State by a point.

If Pitt had earned a No. 6 seed, as Joe Lunardi predicted, it would have likely had to play a No. 3 seed in the second round. It is entirely possible that Gonzaga is a better draw for the Panthers than a No. 3 seed like Marquette, Michigan State, Florida and New Mexico would be.

The Zags are anything but physical, and Talib Zanna, Steven Adams and Dante Taylor could provide matchup problems, depending on how the game is officiated.

A Sweet 16 appearance would have to be considered a major accomplishment considering the Panthers missed out on both the NCAA Tournament and NIT last season.

If Pitt made it that far, it would likely see No. 5 seed Wisconsin or No. 4 seed Kansas State. It would be hard to argue that the Panthers didn’t have at least a 50-50 shot at beating either of those teams.

So in the end, Pitt’s No. 8 seed may seem like a lack of respect for what the Panthers accomplished in the Big East this season, but that seed looks a lot better when you consider Pitt is playing in the weakest region.

Whatever happens to the Panthers in this year’s tournament, their fans can take solace in one thing: Pitt won’t be trying to defend its 2012 CBI championship.

Michael Boytim can be reached at mboytim@altoonamirror.com or 946-7521