Panthers leave paw prints on NCAA Tournament


TPN File photo

Ex-Panther and projected first-round 2019 NBA Draft pick Cameron Johnson, pictured here against Syracuse in 2016, led No. 1 UNC in scoring with 16.9 points per game during the regular season.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

The Pitt men’s basketball team, as we all know, did not make the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers didn’t even come close, going 14-19 overall and 3-15 in the ACC to earn a second-to-last place finish in the conference.

Although the Panthers are absent from the tournament, you can still see their paw prints marked throughout the Big Dance if you look close enough — a sort of five degrees of separation. From teams Pitt beat, to ex-Panthers playing for other teams, to their own head coach making appearances in the broadcasting booth, these are the ways Pitt’s sphere of influence has extended into March Madness.

Staking a National Championship claim

Pitt missed out on the action, but four teams it beat in the regular season made the cut: No. 4 Florida State (75-62 on Jan. 14), No. 7 Louisville (89-86 OT win on Jan. 9), No. 13 Saint Louis (75-73 on Nov. 21) and No. 15 Colgate (68-54 on Dec. 29). The Panthers also nearly beat No. 10 Iowa on Nov. 27, losing a close battle 69-68.

This in itself was a nice bit of reassurance for Panther fans, as well as a good pitch for Pitt head coach Jeff Capel to sell to recruits — that his young team beat some of the best squads in the country.

But it also provided Pitt with a path to the coveted Transitive Property National Championship, a purely theoretical award given annually to each team who previously beat the national champion — and a chance for fans to smugly pronounce that their team is actually better than the team who won it all. Pitt’s football team notably claimed this title in 2016, when the Panthers were the only team in the country to beat the eventual champion Clemson Tigers.

The aforementioned teams that lost to Pitt didn’t fare so well in the Round of 64. Louisville fell 86-76 to lower-seeded Minnesota, and Atlantic 10 champion and popular upset pick Saint Louis got handled by No. 4 Virginia Tech, 66-52. Colgate, to its credit, actually fared much better than most expected a No. 15 seed to play versus No. 2 Tennessee, taking the Volunteers down to the wire before losing by just seven points, 77-70.

Only Florida State took care of business in the opening round, slipping past No. 13 Vermont 76-69. Then in the second round, Florida State walloped star point guard Ja Morant and his Murray State Racers, 90-62. Iowa, meanwhile, came back from 25 points down to go into overtime against Tennessee, only to collapse and lose 83-77.

Florida State now presents Pitt’s last remaining chance at staking a claim of the National Championship via transitive property. The Seminoles will have their work cut out for them. They must get past No. 1 Gonzaga on Thursday, then win three more games against likely opponents No. 2 Michigan, No. 1 Duke and No. 1 North Carolina. It’s a longshot, but they should have the full support of Panther nation cheering them on. Because a win for Florida State is essentially a win for Pitt, so go Seminoles!

Panthers in the tourney

You know what they say — once a Panther, always a Panther. Using that logic, Pitt basketball is actually represented pretty well in the tournament, almost fielding a full lineup of five players: North Carolina senior Cameron Johnson, Georgia State junior Damon Wilson and Old Dominion junior Justice Kithcart all spent time in Pitt’s program before transferring out as part of the exodus that followed the 2016-17 season.

Wilson averaged 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds for a Georgia State Panthers team that won the Sun Belt Championship to earn a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, Wilson’s new Panthers drew a tough No. 3 Houston team in the first round and fell 84-55. Wilson contributed eight points and seven rebounds in the loss.

Kithcart also averaged 5.4 points on an Old Dominion team that won the Conference USA Championship to secure a No. 14 seed. The Monarchs kept the deficit respectable against No. 3 Purdue, falling 61-48 in the first round. It wasn’t Kithcart’s finest moment — he went 0-4 on 3-pointers and was held scoreless in the contest.

Now let’s talk about the most accomplished ex-Panther, projected first-round 2019 NBA Draft pick Cameron Johnson. The 6-foot-9, sweet-shooting forward led No. 1 UNC in scoring with 16.9 points per game and shot an incredible 46.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc during the regular season. He torched No. 16 Iona in the first round with 21 points on four 3-pointers before cooling off a bit in the second round, scoring 13 in an 81-59 win over Washington.

Watching Johnson dominate on the national stage has to be a little bittersweet for Pitt fans. Sure, he left the program, but he did it the right way, graduating early to become immediately eligible. He still holds Pitt in high regards, saying all the right things about his former program and even receiving a warm ovation in his return to the Petersen Events Center on Jan. 5. Plus, he’s a local boy at heart, having been born and raised in nearby Moon Township.

So cheer for Johnson while you can, because he’s Pitt’s last remaining tie to the NCAA Tournament and his Tar Heels have a serious chance to raise the National Championship trophy.

Capel Broadcasting System

If you’ve been keeping up with the tournament, you probably noticed Pitt’s own head coach Capel in the CBS broadcast booth during many of the games. It was announced shortly before March Madness that he would join the studio team for CBS and Turner Sports as an analyst for the Thursday and Friday games.

It was refreshing to see the Panthers’ own head coach on national television, giving the University some free advertising in the form of a Pitt pin on his suit. Anyone who’s ever heard Capel talk knows that he’s well-spoken, thoughtful and articulate. Now, all of America — or whoever turned on their television during Thursday or Friday — knows it.

Capel, of course, did a great job representing Pitt and its basketball program. The way he gave insight on championships, standards and culture-building, you’d have no idea that this guy coached the second-worst team in the ACC. But that’s just a testament to his high expectations and vision for the future of Pitt basketball — a vision that could come to fruition as soon as next season.

Most importantly, this sort of exposure can only have a positive effect on Capel’s Panthers moving forward, especially for recruiting. Recruiting often boils down to one big popularity contest, where programs will do every little (hopefully legal) thing to get the upper hand over competitors. Pitt has two 2019 scholarships left, with big-time names like 7-foot prospect Ibrahima Diallo narrowing his list down to Pitt and Ohio State. If you’re a high school prospect on the fence between two schools, seeing your potential coach on national TV could be the deciding factor.