March Madness: Pitt builds momentum at ACC Tournament

Over the past decade, the Pitt men’s basketball team has never lost in the semifinals of its conference tournament.  

That is until Saturday, when University of Virginia defeated the Panthers by three, 51-48.

Before, the departure had always come before or after that round.

As such, history can’t help solve the particular riddle of what this defeat means for the team’s potential NCAA Tournament success. 

The Panthers’ opening game is Thursday in Orlando, Fla., against the University of Colorado.    

Momentum was a popular buzzword around the hallways of the Greensboro Coliseum, the site of the ACC Tournament, for teams headed to the tournament and for the media covering them. The discussion and difference of opinion about how a team’s performance during this part of the postseason forecasts or affects it in the all-important second part seemed endless. 

But traditionally, just how big of a role has Pitt’s form coming out of its conference tournament had on its performance in the second half of the month?

Results show a pretty significant one. 

Both of the Panthers’ first-round NCAA Tournament exits since head coach Jamie Dixon took over as head coach in 2003-2004 — last season against Wichita State and against University of the Pacific in 2005 — came after they lost the first game in the Big East Tournament.

Second-round losses to Xavier in 2010 and Butler in 2011 were foreshadowed by the same result.

All four defeats came at the quarterfinal stage, following double byes past the first two days of the tournament that the team received by virtue of its top-four finishes in the regular-season Big East standings.

The ACC’s adoption of the double bye in Pitt’s inaugural season in the league meant the squad skipped just one day of competition in North Carolina as the No. 5 seed and started its conference tournament campaign on a Thursday after playing the previous Saturday. 

The Panthers walked over No. 12-seed Wake Forest in the opener with a 29-point victory and generated momentum in doing so, something they haven’t done often in 2014. 

Redshirt senior Lamar Patterson spoke of carrying over that elusive momentum to the matchup with No. 4 seed North Carolina the next day, which the team did. 

In achieving back-to-back victories, Pitt avoided what has become a death knell for its March Madness aspirations.  

That performance did not align with recent results. Going into the ACC Tournament, the team had lost two home games to schools not headed to the NCAAs and needed overtime to beat another on the road. 

The team’s last winning streak of three games or more ended two months ago after a favorable opening schedule featuring a single NCAA tournament team, N.C. State. 

The rising energy levels are evident at the individual level, too, with players using the games as springboards to what they hope will be repeat performances a few days from now, as redshirt senior center Talib Zanna did. He used the three games in three days to eclipse his normal output this season and garner an ACC All-Tournament First Team selection after averaging 17 points and 15 rebounds, markedly higher than his regular-season averages of 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds. His 19-point, 21-rebound performance against North Carolina sticks out, in particular. 

The momentum has come to the Panthers.

“I think our team is playing its best basketball,” Dixon said multiple times over the long weekend at the ACC tournament. “I think it’s the right time to be playing your best.”

Now they just have to keep it.