Kirschman: Woodall’s return rejuvenates Panthers

By Lauren Kirschman

The return of starting point guard Travon Woodall to the Pitt men’s basketball team has… The return of starting point guard Travon Woodall to the Pitt men’s basketball team has revamped a season that, until three games ago, seemed destined to end with the Panthers watching the NCAA Tournament on television.

Coaches and players certainly know how vital a point guard is to a team’s success, and now Pitt basketball fans know, too.

Woodall injured his abdomen and groin on Nov. 30 against Duquesne. He returned on Dec. 27 against Notre Dame but clearly wasn’t healthy and returned to the bench until Jan. 21 against Louisville.

After shaking off the rust with a zero-point, two-assist performance against the Cardinals, Woodall helped the Panthers end an eight-game losing streak against Providence with 17 points and nine assists.

He followed that performance by dishing out 10 assists in the Panthers’ upset of then-No. 9 Georgetown and then led his team to a win on the road at West Virginia by scoring 24 points, 16 of them in the first half.

Suddenly, the Panthers are on the national radar again. Before the winning streak, Pitt ranked 104th in the Ratings Percentage Index but jumped to 65th following wins over Providence, Georgetown and West Virginia.

The RPI ranks teams based on wins and losses as well as strength of schedule and is one of the factors taken into account by the NCAA Tournament committee.

Pitt has the opportunity to keep climbing. The Panthers’ remaining schedule features eight games against teams in the RPI top 100: Villanova (93), South Florida (76) twice, Seton Hall (33), West Virginia (29), Louisville (27) and Connecticut (28).

St. John’s — the only team left on Pitt’s schedule not ranked in the RPI top 100 — is 150th.

It appears as if the Panthers’ tournament hopes rest on finishing their schedule 6-2. If Pitt can do that, the team will finish the year 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big East with the chance to add more wins to its resume in the Big East Tournament.

The selection committee will take Travon Woodall’s injury into consideration, especially considering the turnaround since he rejoined the team completely healthy.

With Woodall, the Panthers are 9-3. Long Beach State upset Pitt at home for its first loss on Nov. 11. The second loss came with a less-than-healthy Woodall at Notre Dame on Dec. 27, followed by a loss in Woodall’s first game back against Louisville.

In the 11 games without Woodall on the floor, the Panthers averaged 66.2 points per game and shot 42.8 percent. In the 12 games with Woodall, Pitt averaged 76.3 points per game and shot 49.4 percent from the floor.

Woodall’s impact can’t be measured completely in numbers. The reinstatement of the Panthers’ point guard means that his teammates can return to their natural positions, allowing the offense to run more smoothly.

“A point guard is important,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after Pitt’s win over West Virginia. “It allows guys to play other spots. It gets guys less minutes. I don’t feel guys are out there playing too many minutes. I don’t feel like they’re playing out of position. We’re feeling more comfortable. We’re getting better.”

Of course, Pitt’s past struggles won’t be disregarded just because Woodall couldn’t play. The Panthers’ strength of schedule is 20th in the country, but Pitt has some bad losses on the record.

The losses to Long Beach State and Wagner aren’t as bad as they seem — the teams are 34th and 77th in the RPI, respectively — but the fact that the defeats came at home doesn’t help Pitt’s case.

According to the RPI, the Panthers’ worst losses came at DePaul (159) and at home against Rutgers (135). Pitt also lacks an impressive nonconference victory.

But before any of those numbers matter, the Panthers have to finish out the season strong and avoid any more bad losses or home losses. Currently, Pitt is still 3-7 in the Big East, and while NCAA Tournament talk has picked up again locally and nationally, the Panthers still have a long way to go to reach the bubble.

The quest for a bid starts on Sunday when the Panthers face Villanova at home. The Wildcats — who started the season receiving votes in both national polls and were picked to finish eighth in the Big East — have also plummeted to the bottom of the conference standings this season.

Villanova is 10-12 and 3-7 in the Big East coming off two consecutive losses to Marquette and Louisville. The Wildcats’ only Big East wins came against DePaul, Seton Hall and St. John’s, who hold conference records of 2-7, 4-6 and 4-6, respectively.

The matchup with Villanova is a game that the Panthers should — and must — win.