March Madness: A look back at Pitt’s 10 straight NCAA Tournament seasons

By Greg Trietley

Over the past decade, the Pitt men’s basketball team has appeared in 10 straight NCAA… Over the past decade, the Pitt men’s basketball team has appeared in 10 straight NCAA Tournaments.

The Panthers finished with a winning record in the Big East each year and never finished in the lower half of the conference standings. They won two Big East tournament titles in 2003 and 2008 and took home at least a share of the conference regular season championship in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2011.

This year, Pitt finished 13th in the Big East standings with a conference record below .500. As the Panthers’ NCAA Tournament streak comes to an end, let’s look back on 10 years of success, starting with the last time Pitt played in the National Invitation Tournament.

March 10, 2001 — After a 7-9 regular-season finish in the Big East, Ben Howland’s Panthers upset Miami, Notre Dame and Syracuse in the conference tournament en route to the championship game, where they would fall to top-seeded Boston College. The Panthers settled for an NIT bid, the last time they would miss the NCAA Tournament until 2012.

Jan. 5, 2002 — Pitt, picked in the preseason to finish ahead of only Rutgers in its seven-team division, upsets No. 12 Boston College on the road, 77-74. The win over the defending Big East champion and preseason favorite moved the Panthers into the Associated Press’ Top 25 for the first time since 1998.

Feb. 10, 2002 — Pitt defeats No. 23 Syracuse, 75-63, at the Carrier Dome. It marked the second time in three weeks that the Panthers defeated the Orange. Junior guard Brandin Knight had 28 points and 20 assists across the two games.

March 2, 2002 — No. 10 Pitt defeats West Virginia, 92-65, in the final men’s basketball game at the Fitzgerald Field House. The Panthers concluded the regular season 25-4 and won the first of three straight regular-season Big East titles. “It was a season that went beyond anyone’s dreams and a season that still looks rich with promise, what with the Big East and NCAA Tournaments ahead,” Bob Smizik wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

March 9, 2002 — The Panthers fall in double overtime to No. 19 Connecticut in the Big East title game. Two weeks later, an overtime loss to No. 10 Kent State in the Sweet Sixteen ends Pitt’s season.

March 26, 2002 — Pitt and Howland, named the Big East’s Coach of the Year, agree to a contract extension through the 2008-2009 season. The Post-Gazette reports that the deal makes Howland the highest-paid Pitt employee at a salary “in excess of $700,000.”

Nov. 23, 2002 — The Panthers open the season ranked No. 5 and christen the Petersen Events Center with an 82-67 win over Duquesne. Pitt would spend the entire regular season ranked in the top 10 and would win its first 34 games at its new home.

Jan. 6, 2003 — Pitt thumps No. 5 Notre Dame, the first of 12 straight top-10 opponents to lose at the Petersen Events Center. The Panthers held the Irish to two field goals in the game’s final 16 minutes. “Defense and rebounding wins games,” Howland said after the game. “Our guys are proud of the way they play defense.”

March 15, 2003 — The Panthers defeat Connecticut, 74-56, at Madison Square Garden to win their first Big East Championship. Knight battled an ankle injury to start at point guard and score 16 points with six assists. “I wasn’t going to miss this game for anything,” the senior said. “The only way to miss it would have been if I couldn’t walk.”

March 17, 2003 — UCLA fires Steve Lavin. Howland downplays speculation that he will leave Pitt to coach the Bruins. “I’m not planning on going anywhere,” he told ESPN Radio. “I have such a good situation here.”

March 27, 2003 — Dwyane Wade scores 22 points, and his Marquette Golden Eagles defeat Pitt 77-74 in the Sweet Sixteen. The game is the last as a Panther for Knight, Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackas, the winningest senior class in Pitt history to that point.

March 28, 2003 — Howland meets with his Pitt players after visiting UCLA over the weekend. He backs off his earlier comments, now stating he “is compelled to look at the potential opportunity.” Five days later, he agrees to coach the Bruins.

April 4, 2003 — The Post-Gazette reports that the players want assistant coach Jamie Dixon to become the new head coach, but a meeting with administrators left them “to believe that Dixon — a finalist at Illinois State and Wright State, along with a candidate to join Howland’s staff at UCLA — isn’t a prime player in Pitt’s national pursuit.” Then-Memphis coach John Calipari’s name is tossed about.

April 15, 2003 — After Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser spurns Pitt’s offer in favor of a contract extension with the Demon Deacons, the Panthers turn to Dixon to lead the basketball program. He is the first Pitt hire without previous head coaching experience since Tim Grgurich in 1975. At 37, he is the youngest head coach in the Big East.

Jan. 17, 2004 — Pitt wins its first 18 games under Dixon, the 18th a 59-49 home win over Rutgers.

Feb. 15, 2004 — The No. 4 Panthers avenge a January loss to Connecticut by defeating the No. 5 Huskies 75-68 at home in the first-ever matchup of top-five teams at Pitt. “They’re the best team in our league right now,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said after the game.

Feb. 29, 2004 — Syracuse ends Pitt’s perfection at the Petersen Events Center, defeating the Panthers 49-46 in overtime. Pitt ends the regular season 27-3 and wins the Big East regular-season title, as usual.

March 13, 2004 — Connecticut and Pitt meet again for the Big East Championship. The Panthers led by as many as 11 points in the second half, but the Huskies surged back to win, 61-58. “When you play Pitt, being down 10 or 11 you feel like you’re down 20,” Connecticut guard Taliek Brown said after the game. “We never gave up and attacked like we were still in the hunt.” Connecticut went on to win the National Championship.

March 25, 2004 — For the third consecutive year, the Panthers drop their Sweet Sixteen game, this time to No. 2 seed Oklahoma State, 63-51.

Jan. 2, 2005 — Bucknell beats Pitt 69-66 to become the first non-conference opponent to defeat the Panthers at the Petersen Events Center. The Bison’s feat would not be matched until Long Beach State won on Pitt’s home court this season.

March 10, 2005 — Pitt finishes fifth in the Big East at 10-6 and loses to Villanova, 67-58, in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

March 17, 2005 — The Panthers fall to No. 8 seed Pacific, 79-71, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Pacific used an early double-digit lead to down Pitt. “We just dug too deep a hole in the first half,” Dixon said after the loss.

Jan. 4, 2006 — Pitt reaches the century mark in a double-overtime, 100-97 win over Notre Dame. Sophomore guard Ronald Ramon hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 15 seconds left in the second overtime for the victory. Seven-foot junior center Aaron Gray had a career-high 25 points and 11 boards.

March 11, 2006 — No. 6 seed Pitt wins three games in three days over Louisville, West Virginia and Villanova to reach the Big East tournament final, only to lose to No. 9 seed Syracuse, 65-61. Gray and senior guard Carl Krauser are both named to the all-tournament team.

March 19, 2006 — A second-round upset at the hands of No. 13 Bradley ends Pitt’s season and Krauser’s Panther career. Freshman Levance Fields had a career-high 18 points in the loss.

Nov. 16, 2006 — DeJuan Blair, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee sign with Pitt as part of a five-player recruiting class. The Post-Gazette called Blair a “good but not great college player,” and said that the other players, ranked outside the top 100, would “buy into [Dixon’s] defensive-oriented style where teamwork takes priority over showmanship and the best are not routinely leaving early for the NBA.”

March 10, 2007 — Pitt reaches yet another Big East title game but loses to Georgetown, 65-42.

March 22, 2007 — Dixon and Howland meet in the Sweet Sixteen, as the Panthers and Bruins collide in an NCAA Tournament matchup. Dixon fell to his friend and predecessor, 64-55, in their only game against each other since Howland left Pitt.

Dec. 20, 2007 — The No. 11 Panthers cap an 11-0 start to the season with a 65-64 overtime thriller over No. 6 Duke at Madison Square Garden. Fields hit a game-winning step-back 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left to play minutes after his best friend on the team, Mike Cook, suffered a season-ending knee injury. “When Mike went down, it brought tears to my eyes,” Fields said after the game. “It’s his last year, and he can’t go out like that … I talk about game-winners all the time. I had to hit it for my teammates, myself and the city of Pittsburgh.”

Feb. 7, 2008 — Two years after his game-winning three against Notre Dame, Ramon hits another one, this time in the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia as time expires to give Pitt a 55-54 win at the Petersen Events Center. Dixon said after the game that the play was actually drawn to go to forward Sam Young.

March 15, 2008 — Entering the Big East tournament as a No. 7 seed, the Panthers win four games in four days to capture the championship over No. 1 seed Georgetown. Pitt remains the only school to appear in the final seven times in an eight-year span. “We didn’t win this game two years in a row, and we found a way to get over the hump,” Fields said. “We know what it’s like to be on the other end, to sit and listen to somebody else celebrate. Tonight, I got a piece of the net.”

March 22, 2008 — Pitt drops its second-round tournament game to Michigan State 65-54, and an appearance beyond the Sweet Sixteen remains elusive.

Jan. 5, 2009 — The 14-0 Panthers earn the No. 1 rank in the Associated Press poll for the first time in their history. Six days later, they celebrate by beating St. John’s at home, 90-67. Pitt would remain No. 1 until it stumbled at Louisville on Jan. 17, 69-63.

Feb. 16, 2009 — Blair flips Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet over his back in a battle over a rebound, and Pitt upsets No. 1 Connecticut in Hartford, 76-68. Blair finished with 23 rebounds, the most in a single game for a Pitt player since 1961. “That was the most physical game I ever played in my entire life,” he said after the win. “There were elbows flying, bodies flying. We just went after each other the whole game.”

March 26, 2009 — Pitt advances to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1974 with a 60-55 win over No. 4 seed Xavier. It is the first NCAA Tournament win for the program over a top-five seed.

March 28, 2009 — Pitt’s Final Four hopes end with a dash up the court by Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds. Fields hit two free throws with six seconds to play to tie the game for the Panthers, but Reynolds converted a game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds on the clock to give the Wildcats a 78-76 victory. The game is their last as Panthers for Young, Fields, Blair and Tyrell Biggs.

April 8, 2009 — Blair officially declares for the NBA draft in a press conference alongside Dixon. “I’ve got the skills for it,” he said. “This is my dream. If it’s right there, why not go reach it?” Because of concerns over high school knee injuries, Blair fell to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, 37th overall.

Oct. 21, 2009 — The Big East preseason poll ranks Pitt ninth in the conference, its lowest projection since 2001-02. With guard Jermaine Dixon out with an ankle injury to start the year, the Panthers open the season against Wofford on Nov. 13 with five new starters: McGhee, Wanamaker, Travon Woodall, Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson. They win by three.

Feb. 12, 2010 — The No. 25 Panthers and No. 5 Mountaineers play into the early hours of the next morning, as Pitt pulls out the triple-overtime victory over West Virginia, 98-95, in what is the longest home game in school history. The Panthers, down five points with 35 seconds to play in regulation, capped the comeback when Gibbs hit a 3-pointer from the corner after Robinson stole an inbounds pass.

March 6, 2010 — Gilbert Brown scores 19 points, and Pitt crushes Rutgers in its regular-season finale, 83-54, to finish tied for second in the Big East standings. “Losing the amount of talent [Dixon] did, that’s the sign of a great program to finish second,” Rutgers coach Fred Hill said after the game. “He’s done a phenomenal year.”

March 21, 2010 — Last-second 3-point attempts from Gibbs and Wanamaker don’t fall, and No. 6 seed Xavier upsets Pitt, 71-68, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Crawford finished with 27 points for the Musketeers.

Oct. 20, 2010 — The Big East preseason poll names Pitt the favorite to win the conference. The Panthers don’t disappoint, clinching a share of the regular-season conference title on Mar. 2 at South Florida and raising the banner after a Senior Day victory Mar. 5 against Villanova. Pitt finished the regular season 27-4.

Dec. 22, 2010 — Jamie Dixon earns his 200th career win in his 255th game as Pitt defeats American 61-46.

March 10, 2011 — Kemba Walker ends the Big East tournament hopes of the Panthers when he jukes out center McGhee and hits a step-back jumper at the buzzer to give No. 9 seed Connecticut the quarterfinals win over Pitt, 76-74. The Huskies went on to win both the Big East Championship and National Championship.

March 19, 2011 — A tough second-round draw hands the Panthers No. 8 seed Butler, and the Bulldogs defeat Pitt in heartbreaking fashion, 71-70. Butler’s Andrew Smith finished a go-ahead layup with three seconds to play, only to see teammate Shelvin Mack foul Brown at mid-court on the ensuing possession. Brown hit the first free throw to tie the game at 70, but after he missed the second, Robinson fouled Matt Howard in an attempt to pry loose the rebound. Howard hit his first free throw to send Pitt packing. “I take the blame, man. I take the blame for the loss,” Robinson said teary-eyed after the game. The loss ended the Pitt careers of Brown, McGhee and Wanamaker and was the last of Pitt’s 10 consecutive tournament appearances.