Throwing a Kirschball: Pitt basketball in perspective

By Lauren Kirschman

The beginning of the game felt like an early nonconference matchup: the kind of contest that… The beginning of the game felt like an early nonconference matchup: the kind of contest that happens over Thanksgiving break when all the students are home and more worried about turkey than basketball.

But this game didn’t take place over a holiday. It took place in the middle of the Big East season. It should have been a game that — even with an opponent like Providence — Pitt students would be lined up for hours before tipoff. Normally, the Oakland Zoo would have overpowered the booming voice of the announcer and the squeak of basketball shoes on the arena floor.

But nothing about this Pitt men’s basketball season has been normal, or at least not the kind of normal Panther fans have become accustomed to.

This time last year, Notre Dame and its burn offense snapped a nine-game Panther win streak. The Pitt community got a little concerned — or as concerned as a fan base can be when its team just lost its first Big East game after rattling off seven consecutive conference wins. Pitt quickly put its followers back at ease, winning five straight contests and eventually taking home the Big East regular season championship and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This year, the Panthers achieved the reverse.

They finally snapped an eight game losing streak with an 86-74 win over Providence on Wednesday night. At times, the Panthers looked like the team many fans expected them to be this season — minus some spotty defense. At one point in the first half, Ashton Gibbs drained four 3-pointers in just under two minutes. Starting point guard Travon Woodall — back from his injury — scored his first points since suffering a torn abdomen and groin strain on Nov. 30 against Duquesne and finished the game with 17 points.

The biggest worry of the Pitt fan base last season was whether the Panthers would earn a No. 1 seed. For over a decade, talk of the Pitt basketball program has been about the NCAA Tournament, seeding, championships and reloading — not rebuilding. But even with the victory over Providence — Pitt’s first Big East win this season — the Panthers are still 1-7 in the Big East and staring at three words they haven’t seen in a while: National Invitation Tournament.

In the midst of their worst season in more than 10 years, the Panthers probably wouldn’t mind going back to those nonconference games in November when the season still stretched ahead of them — before the eight straight losses, before the winless conference season, before Woodall’s injury and before words like National Invitation Tournament started circling the Petersen Events Center in hushed tones.

At this point, the NIT might be all the Panthers can hope for — and a few years ago, Pitt would have been in danger of not even qualifying for a bid to the NIT. Until the rule was abolished in 2006, teams couldn’t qualify for the NIT if they finished under .500.

With the win on Wednesday, the Panthers moved to 12-9 overall and, if they can finish the season strong, should earn a bid. If they don’t use the victory to turn the season around, the Panthers could still struggle to make the NIT, despite the new rule. Even with the change, no team with a sub-.500 record has made the NIT since 2006.

The Panthers appeared to be getting back on the right track on Wednesday — or at least getting near it. Gibbs looked happy to have his backcourt mate Woodall back as the two combined for 39 points and nine 3-pointers. Woodall also dished out nine assists, a high stat for Pitt this season. Gibbs said Woodall opens up more space for him on the floor.

“He’s an extra playmaker and, at the same time, he’s a scoring option, too,” Gibbs said. “The defense has to respect him … the best is to come for him and this team.”

It remains to be seen if the balanced scoring — six players scored at least seven points — and lack of turnovers — Pitt turned the ball over just 10 times — can follow the Panthers for the remainder of the season.

A lot of the improvement can be attributed to Woodall’s return, something that Providence head coach Ed Cooley acknowledged when he called the Panthers a “totally different team” with Woodall on the floor. Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon seemed to agree.

“Most teams are more confident when they have their point guard on the floor,” Dixon said. “I think you could do a general survey … and have a consensus on that one.”

But Woodall’s return might be a little too late to salvage Pitt’s season, even if the NCAA Tournament selection committees take his injury into consideration.

If Wednesday’s win was the first step toward the Panthers’ improvement, there seems to be one lone hope of Pitt reaching the NCAA Tournament, and that’s running the table at the Big East Tournament in March. But Pitt could still end the season on a positive note, and if the Panthers hold it long enough, that momentum could extend into next season.

Although Gibbs and Nasir Robinson — who scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds on Wednesday — will be gone next year, Woodall will return along with freshman guard John Johnson, who was forced to grow up fast this season. Add in Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore with another year of experience as well as a top-5 recruit in center Steven Adams and a standout high school point guard in James Robinson, and Panther fans could quickly find themselves talking about NCAA Tournament seeds and championships again.

The Panthers certainly aren’t the first major program to experience a down year.

North Carolina was the NIT Tournament runner-up in 2010, just a season after winning the National Championship. Ohio State won the NIT in 2008 after going to the Final Four in 2007. West Virginia, nearly as consistent as Pitt, won the NIT in 2007, while Baylor — in the talks for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament this year — finished as the NIT runner-up in 2009.

Still, the NIT isn’t where the Panthers want to be, and it’s certainly a long way from Pitt’s version of normal. But if Woodall really is the answer, then the Zoo could be filled again by next week.

Even if the Panthers’ season doesn’t end where they wanted it to, at least they can finish out the year strong and build toward reclaiming the program’s near unbeatable consistency. Maybe Pitt fans will look back one day and view this season as no more than a hiccup in the grand scheme of normal.