Trietley: Pitt already on bubble

By Greg Trietley

For the Pitt men’s basketball team, there is no long, Cardiac Hill march to the NCAA… For the Pitt men’s basketball team, there is no long, Cardiac Hill march to the NCAA Tournament.

It’s a gentle crest at this point. The Panthers are already on the bubble.

“Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi of ESPN named Minnesota, Arizona, Seton Hall and North Carolina State as the final four schools that would make the Tournament if it started Monday. Although Lunardi has no influence on the selection committee — and guessing the 37th at-large bid is always a lottery game for sports nerds — he gives a fairly accurate sample of the minimum resumé needed for a ticket to the Big Dance.

So let’s take a look at the “last four in” school with which Pitt is most familiar: Seton Hall. The Pirates are 15-8 overall and 4-7 in the Big East.

They bested Connecticut at home 75-63 when the Huskies were ranked No. 8. A strong victory against Colonial Athletic Association powerhouse Virginia Commonwealth highlighted Seton Hall’s nonconference schedule, which also featured resumé-padding wins over the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Longwood, Mercer (in overtime) and St. Francis College (also in overtime).

Connecticut avenged its earlier loss by trouncing the Pirates 69-46 last weekend. Seton Hall also lost to South Florida, Villanova, Notre Dame, Louisville and Marquette — all in a row, actually. The Pirates haven’t won since Jan. 10, when they beat DePaul.

Seton Hall does have the 13th-hardest schedule in the nation, but with losses to all the “hard” opponents (the Orange, the Irish, the Cardinals and the Golden Eagles) it doesn’t mean much.

Pitt, with the 24th-toughest schedule, possesses the same 4-7 Big East record as the Pirates. The two share losses at Syracuse: Pitt by eight, Seton Hall by 26. They share wins over West Virginia, single-digit losses at Marquette and double-digit losses to Notre Dame. While Seton Hall beat St. Francis of New York, Pitt beat Saint Francis University of Pennsylvania.

Both teams are 1-3 against schools ranked in the coaches’ poll. The Panthers beat No. 10 Georgetown three weeks after Seton Hall felled the Huskies, an opponent that has since lost its Top 25 luster.

If you strip away the names “Panthers” and “Pirates,” it’s tough to distinguish which program is supposedly more qualified for the Tournament than the other.

Seton Hall trumps Pitt in one category: RPI. The Ratings Percentage Index weighs a team’s winning percentage (25 percent of the index), its opponents’ winning percentage (50 percent) and its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (25 percent) for the sake of comparison. Through Monday’s games, the Pirates are ranked No. 33, whereas the Panthers are No. 64.

Wake Forest, Northwestern and Auburn — three of Seton Hall’s nonconference opponents — have played 11 non-Big East teams currently ranked in the Top 25, which is great news for the Pirates’ RPI.

But Seton Hall’s RPI is an exception to the bubble norm. Remember the other last teams in: Minnesota, North Carolina State and Arizona? They are Nos. 50, 56 and 66 in RPI, respectively. The Golden Gophers and the Wolfpack, like the Panthers, each have one win over a ranked team. The Wildcats have none.

Arizona’s resumé highlight is an overtime loss at No. 12 Florida, 78-72. The Pac-12 schedule doesn’t have a ranked team for the 16-8 Wildcats to face, or anything close to it.

Pitt has a better RPI than Wyoming, Colorado and Stanford, three of Lunardi’s first eight teams left out of the Tournament. It also topped the rank of Texas, another bubble team, until the Longhorns beat Texas A&M Monday.

The Panthers have two bad losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100 — Rutgers and DePaul — but so does everybody else on the bubble. That’s why it’s the bubble. Texas surrendered 100 points to Oregon State. Wyoming lost to Green Bay and Texas Christian.

Pitt has Travon Woodall healthy and averaging 14.8 points and 5.8 assists per game since his return. The Panthers have won four straight games, and you won’t find many analysts picking South Florida or slumping Seton Hall to beat them this week.

The long, tough climb back to relevance is almost over. All that’s left is the last little hill.