Pitt students embrace excitement, unpredictability of team’s first NCAA tournament in seven years


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

A basketball at the Petersen Events Center.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

For current upperclassmen and students who’ve followed Pitt athletics since they arrived on campus, men’s basketball was an afterthought.

Most students come to Pittsburgh with no prior affiliation to the University, therefore garnering no vested interest in the Pitt teams of old. Teams that for most of the 2000s and early 2010s drew raucous crowds and garnered national attention for their on-court success. 

Instead, this generation of students became used to Pitt basketball teams providing an inferior product on court, constantly in turmoil and always falling well short of preseason expectations.

After seven years of letdowns, mediocrity and a concerning lack of excitement from students, Pitt basketball finally returned to the NCAA tournament. According to senior finance major Kevin Keneally, this is the first time he’s experienced genuine excitement following the program in four years.

“For me, it’s just one of those really cool things to have a basketball team you can wake up excited about,” Keneally said. “It was what I thought about most — even during the middle of the week I would put on a Pitt game for once instead of like an A-10 game or a good Big-12 game, it’s crazy.”

Keneally is just one of an entire generation of Pitt students and fans who have gone their entire academic career without optimism for Pitt basketball. They’ve instead devoted their support to teams like football or volleyball, disregarding the program that once commanded Oakland’s attention. 

Some older students, like senior economics major Drew Bean, actually started off their time at Pitt with high enthusiasm for the basketball team. As the years progressed, Bean’s excitement waned, and so did his interest in attending games. 

“I paid attention to Pitt basketball more in my earlier years compared to now,” Bean said. “When they were just losing and tanking at the end of the season, it just made me lose hope. I was actually a season ticket holder for each of the last three years. I’m a senior now and this is the one year I decided not to get tickets … lo and behold, the one year I don’t get tickets, they make the tournament.”

As this season progressed and fans started to realize that Pitt basketball might contend in the ACC, the atmosphere at the Petersen Events Center became that much more exciting. According to Keneally, the team brought in new fans not just from their increase in wins, but because of their playstyle as well. 

“You can get these fans who wouldn’t generally come to a game to come because we’re an exciting team,” Keneally said. “We are fast paced, we push the ball, we shoot deep threes, Hinson takes awful shots and it’s beautiful. All of those things are awesome.”

For many students, Pitt’s success this season sparked a personal interest in basketball that never previously existed. Junior anthropology major Emily Brown is an athlete on the track and field team who generally pays close attention to Pitt’s teams — but prior to this season basketball wasn’t on her radar. 

“I’ve never been like a huge basketball person,” Brown said. “I’ve gone to a game here and there, but this year it’s been really exciting because they really have been playing so well … the atmosphere has just been so much more exciting than in years past.”

While older students on campus who’ve followed Pitt for several years are finally experiencing their first successful basketball team, current first years are spoiled by immediately experiencing a winning atmosphere. 

According to first year finance major Theo Oreste, his first few experiences as part of the Oakland Zoo this season were unforgettable. 

“During the Miami game, when they made that comeback, the Zoo was absolutely insane,” Oreste said. “It was a great experience for me, it was loud, it was fun, and that’s what I’m here for.”

Oreste also mentioned that going into gamedays, students plan days in advance how they’re planning on watching, regardless of if the game is home or away. 

“You don’t even have to look up when the games are, that’s how popular Pitt basketball is around here,” Oreste said. “Everybody wants to follow them. Even if we’re not going to the game, there’s watch parties.”

Oreste’s friend, first-year marketing major Cale Stover, said even away from gamedays, the student body is constantly following the basketball team, especially around March Madness. 

“There were tons of people talking about if we were going to get into March Madness,” Stover. “It was up in the air, but especially the freshmen because they’re coming in and didn’t know what to expect … Everybody’s talking about them, even my family.”

For Pitt’s First Four contest against Mississippi State, even students like Bean who became frustrated by the team’s lack of success over the past few years will have their eyes glued to the TV, hoping that the Panthers can make a run. 

“Oh yeah, I’ll be watching the First Four game,” Bean said. “If they do make a run, I’ll follow them a lot more than I did throughout prior seasons, that’s for sure.”

For Keneally and other Pitt students who’ve remained diligent in their support of Pitt basketball, even through the tough years, making the trip to Dayton and potentially to Greensboro was a no-brainer. 

“This year, I’ve got a bunch of my friends texting me or texting other people like ‘Are we going to Dayton?’” Keneally said. “[Last year’s First Four] were two of the best environment games I’ve ever seen to this day.”

As for predictions, most of the student body isn’t sure how far the Panthers will go. According to sophomore biology major and track and field athlete Sarah Hurst, March Madness is naturally unpredictable, especially for a bubble team like Pitt.

“I mean, it’s March Madness, anything can happen,” Hurst said. “You never know who’s going to win, any chance is a good chance.”

Some students, like first-year undeclared student Emmanuel Okoro, weren’t optimistic about Pitt’s chances and thought that the Panthers’ journey would end in Dayton. 

“I know they have their first game against Mississippi State, so they might get beat by 20,” Oreste said. “Mississippi State should definitely win the game, 20 points might be a stretch, but I’ll give them at least 10 points. 

But other students — the more optimistic ones who just weren’t ready for Pitt’s season to end — felt that some March magic might be in store for the Panthers. 

“I’ll tell you what — underdog story,” Oreste said. “They’re winning March Madness and I’ll be right there watching. Everybody make your brackets, put your money on Pitt.”