Basketball: Panthers look to finish season on high note

By Kelly Flanigan

To the dismay of Panther fans everywhere, Pitt’s worst season in more than a decade will not… To the dismay of Panther fans everywhere, Pitt’s worst season in more than a decade will not come to an end.

After riding a seven-game conference losing streak in mid-winter, Pitt knew its hopes for getting into the NCAA Tournament were slim. The team figured it would have to settle for playing in the National Invitation Tournament as a back-up, although acceptance of an NIT bid would cause slight embarrassment for a program that has not missed an NCAA Tournament appearance during head coach Jamie Dixon’s 10-year reign.

But after being passed up by the NIT committee on Sunday night, Pitt will play Wofford at 7 p.m. on March 14 at the Petersen Events Center as part of the College Basketball Invitational.

Sixteen teams will compete in the CBI, but cross-city rival Duquesne will not be one of those teams, as it rejected its potential bid in an effort to instead focus on recruiting and moving on to the next season. Opponents are arguing that Pitt should have done the same, as even advancing through and winning this tournament will provide few tangible benefits.

So why compete? Dixon says it is an opportunity to get more experience for the young players on his team. It gives players an opportunity to see where they need to improve and the team an opportunity to assess holistic strengths and weaknesses.

“Our guys want to play,” he said. “Given our youth, this is an event that is important to us. We’re excited about the opportunity. We know [Wofford] and how good of a program they are. They’ll be very anxious and excited for this game, just like we are. They have a lot of seniors — they are experienced.”

“College Basketball Invitational” seemed to be a painful utterance for Dixon at Monday afternoon’s press conference. He used the phrase “It’s not the NCAA Tournament” nearly 10 times, although he countered the assertion with, “but this is where we landed.” However, he says he knew before the CBI called that Pitt would accept.

“As far as getting ready for Wofford and the College Basketball Invitational, it’s obviously a new experience for us,” Dixon said. “Our goal was to play in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s not the case, so we’re playing in the CBI.”

The players seem happy for the extra opportunity to compete as well. Sophomore guard J.J. Moore said the team was obviously initially disappointed but appreciates the chance to extend its season.

“We want to try to look to win something instead of going out with a loss,” Moore said. “It is definitely a stepping stone for next year. We fell short this year. We feel that this will make us play harder because we don’t want the same reaction next year.”

Moore is one of the team’s younger players who will undoubtedly benefit from a bit more experience. Having played increasingly well in the last five games of the season, Moore will still look to improve his defense.

“I think I’m playing well, and my teammates think I’m playing well, too,” Moore said. “I’ve been working on my defense and rebounding more. I think I did both of these at the end of the season.”

“Teams go through rebuilding years, and this is a rebuilding year for us,” fresman Malcolm Gilbert added. “We’re keeping our heads high, and now we are moving forward focusing on getting better and getting stronger.”

Gilbert cites getting used to the speed of the game and the team’s sets as benefits he will gain from extending the season.

“It’s a mental battle out there,” he said. “The extra practice time will help me go harder defensively. Now we can still battle each other to make each other better and get better as a team.”

Nasir Robinson did not practice on Monday due to swelling in his knee. Durand Johnson, a redshirt freshman, is hurt and not practicing. Starting point guard Tray Woodall is not yet at 100 percent.

Opponents of Pitt participating in the CBI will cite these injuries as even more reason to avoid competition. They claim Pitt should move on and look forward to recruiting, getting healthy and progressing toward the next season.

Coach Dixon cites the extra practices that come with participation in the CBI as an added benefit.

“We’ve always been playing at this time of year. This season was unique, and every situation is different. I felt that having a game to play for would give us something to look forward to,” Dixon said.

Despite the fact that the CBI will be primarily an opportunity for the younger members of the team, Dixon is still focused on winning.

“We need to have our best team on the floor and play our best basketball. We’re going to try and be the best team we can be,” he said.

Moore agreed.

“We’re trying to do this for the seniors,” he said. “We want to win something for them and play as a team. It’s good for the younger guys like me, but at the same time it’s for the seniors.”

When asked how he felt the turnout would be for the game, Dixon could not be bothered.

“We’ve never dealt with as short of a turnaround as this before,” Dixon said. “We’re in different circumstances. If we don’t sell a lot of tickets, I don’t think that reflects anything about where we are or what we’ve done.”

Even after the team’s hardships, Dixon is still not making excuses for his squad. Instead, he is focused on Wofford and advancing through the CBI.

“We understand the situation that we’re in, and we recognize that,” he said. “We don’t make any excuses for it. We’re trying to win a game. That doesn’t change no matter who you’re playing.”