Basketball: Panthers tourney hopes alive again

By Kelly Flanigan

You might remember my last column on Pitt basketball. It began by warning readers not to expect… You might remember my last column on Pitt basketball. It began by warning readers not to expect to see Pitt in the NCAA Tournament this year. But now the tables have turned.

The Panthers (15-9, 4-7 Big East) are riding a four-game winning streak since the return of the team’s point guard, Travon Woodall.

The Panthers’ first conference win this year against Providence was impressive, but not necessarily a resumé-topper by the standards of the NCAA committee. It was essential that Pitt beat Providence at the Petersen Events Center in order to get back on track. This victory was followed by a convincing 12-point win over No. 9 Georgetown, an eight-point win over the Mountaineers at the Coliseum and a nine-point win over the Villanova Wildcats on their home court.

It won’t be easy to get into the tournament. The NCAA committee can, at times, be very unpredictable, but the Panthers are certainly doing their best to make a strong case for a bid late in the season. The team has shown that its will to win is still strong and that it can defeat teams both on the road and at home. Pitt’s winning streak is hard to ignore, especially after its losing eight straight games.

The Panthers’ RPI — their rating percentage index, which is used to calculate a team’s strength of schedule along with its win percentage — continues to rise as they defeat top conference teams. Of the eight remaining teams, seven have RPIs currently ranking them within the top 100 teams. With wins over these teams, Pitt could continue to make its case for a tournament bid.

Don’t get too excited just yet, though. Pitt is still tied for 10th place in the conference with three other teams (Seton Hall, Rutgers and St. John’s) that have 4-7 conference records. With seven games remaining, it’s difficult to predict how the rest of the season will play out. Still remaining on the schedule are away games against South Florida, Seton Hall, Louisville and Connecticut. Pitt still has to play St. John’s and a tough West Virginia team at the Petersen Events Center before bids for the NCAA Tournament are finalized.

Realistically, the Panthers probably need at least six wins out of the remaining eight games. Three losses would make the NCAA Committee’s potential decision to knock the Panthers off the bubble much easier. Limiting the rest of the season’s record to only one loss would brighten the Panthers’ chances all the more.

After the regular season, there’s the Big East tournament. To be comfortable going into March, the Panthers will need to win several games. The tournament’s venue, Madison Square Garden in New York City, has been called the “Panthers’ second home court.” But the Panthers are likely to be playing a top-four team like Syracuse, Georgetown or Notre Dame in the first round. To get the win against one of those teams in a high-pressure environment will be difficult, but Pitt has done it before. And if the Panthers can pull off the upset, it would only help their bid for the NCAA Tournament.

It would be unfair to write a column on a possible Pitt postseason without explaining how the team moved from an eight-game losing streak to lightly knocking on the NCAA’s door. The explanation is simple: Woodall.

Since his return from injury, Woodall has single-handedly taken control of games and shown on-the-court leadership that the team had been drastically lacking.

Woodall scored 29 points, a career high, against Villanova on Sunday, shooting 7-of-12 from the field — 3-of-6 from behind the arc — and sinking all twelve of his foul shots. Against West Virginia, he had 24 points.

The Panthers struggled tremendously with shooting in Woodall’s absence. This was one of the major reasons for the eight-game losing streak. But not only have Woodall’s numbers improved the team’s, his presence has improved others’ shooting as well.

The dynamic combination of Ashton Gibbs and Woodall as a backcourt tandem is a force that cannot be reckoned with. Having known one another since the seventh grade, the two play together naturally. Quite simply, when Woodall is in the game, Gibbs can focus on finding his shot and Woodall can focus on getting him the ball. Woodall has said many times before that the goal of his first look off any play is to “get the ball to Ash.”

Against Villanova, Gibbs had 25 points and shot 4-8 from the 3-point line. Together, Gibbs and Woodall shot 19-of-19 from the free-throw line.

Woodall doesn’t just bring scoring and play creation to the table. He also averages five rebounds and four assists per game. He controls the tempo of the team and the management of the clock. Perhaps most importantly, Woodall brings experience and energy.

After Woodall hit a big three against Villanova and dished out another key assist, the Wildcats’ head coach Jay Wright called a timeout. Woodall pumped his fist, flexed his muscles and looked to the Oakland Zoo, which was already going crazy. This kind of energy hasn’t been characteristic of the Panthers at all yet this season; it’s an intangible Woodall brings to the game with him. He brings immeasurable contributions to this team during every contest.

At this point in the season, all Panther fans can do is wait. A situation in which the team’s fate is not entirely in its own hands is difficult to grapple with — and many other factors are at play in this case. The manner in which the rest of the conference shakes out and the number of games out of the remaining eight that Pitt can stack on its resumé will determine whether or not the Panthers will have a postseason to look forward to. If Tray Woodall has anything to do with the decision, though, you can bet on seeing Pitt in the NCAA Tournament.