Oltmanns: Panthers’ early exit disappointing, damaging

By Alex Oltmanns

Just two weeks ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team looked primed for a run to the Final… Just two weeks ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team looked primed for a run to the Final Four.

It had just beaten Villanova to clinch a Big East regular season championship and was set to begin what looked to be a promising postseason.

But now, after an early exit in their first game in the Big East tournament against Connecticut and a stunning loss to Butler in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, the Panthers’ season can suddenly be classified as a failure.

Even after losing to Connecticut, Pitt was awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in a Southeast regional bracket that many experts cited as the easiest of the four Tournament regions, paving a clear path for a Pitt run to Houston.

But the Panthers failed to make the Final Four once again as No. 8-seed Butler rained a barrage of 3-pointers en route to a 71-70 victory on Saturday night.

But the question remains: Who should be at fault for Saturday night’s heartbreaking loss?

Some are pointing to head coach Jamie Dixon for not preparing his team well enough for postseason play or not game-planning well enough for the Butler matchup.

Others are putting the blame on senior forward Gilbert Brown, who missed the tail end of two free throws with just over a second left in the game that would’ve given the Panthers a one-point lead.

But a lot of onlookers are pointing to forward Nasir Robinson, who fouled Butler’s Matt Howard with less than a second left about 90 feet away from Pitt’s basket after Brown’s missed free throw.

“I’ll take responsibility for the loss,” Dixon said after the game. “But I’m proud of the effort they made. We didn’t lose it on one play. We lost through the entire game.”

Dixon will of course accept the blame for the loss, yet in reality, the blame shouldn’t fall on any one particular player or coach’s shoulders. This loss falls on the entire team.

No matter whose fault the loss is, it doesn’t take away from the disappointment that the Butler loss brings to not only this year’s men’s basketball team but also the program as a whole.

The excitement building around the team this year had fans dreaming of a Final Four after spending the entire season ranked in the top 10 and collecting wins against some of the nation’s elite teams like Texas, Syracuse and Connecticut.

The Panthers seemed to have all the pieces in place for a deep tournament run with a respected head coach, a sharp shooter in Ashton Gibbs, good rebounders and lockdown defenders to go along with a strong senior class.

But 12 Butler 3-pointers and 30 Shelvin Mack points later, those seniors — Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee — saw their collegiate careers come to an end.

“It hurts even more because it’s our last game,” Brown said. “We know we’ll never be able to put the jersey on again and go out there and play with our teammates.”

The loss to Butler is bad in itself, but it’s how they lost — after missing a late free throw and then fouling late in the game — that might have made this the most disappointing loss in the program’s history.

“We’ve had a few losses this year, not a lot, but they’ve all been disappointing,” Dixon said. “This is a disappointing loss for us.”

The Panthers will head into the offseason once again optimistic for next year with a strong core of returning players and a good recruiting class to go along with them. But the sting of this loss will long linger in the minds of fans and players alike.

Brown might have said it best after his final Pitt game: “Everybody on the team is like family, so this being the last game is really an emotional blow to us.”