By Andrew Kahn
After missing out on the NCAA Tournament last season, the Panthers are back. It wasn’t an easy road, and their place in the field was never truly secure. How did they do it?
Preseason expectation: Pittsburgh was picked to finish 10th in the ACC, a telltale sign that a Tournament bid was by no means expected. But there was plenty to like about this team—several key returners, a lot of size—as the season opened.
November 13/14: Two dates are listed here because the game takes place in Okinawa, Japan. It is Saturday morning there, but Friday in the States. The game, against then-No. 9 Gonzaga on a Marine Corps Base, doesn’t finish. Despite tipping off in the morning and taking place inside a field house on a legitimate basketball court, the temperature and humidity level make the surface way too slick for a game. The event was intended to be a salute to the military, but the teams only play the first half. Even that was pushing it. Players are slipping all over, including Pitt’s James Robinson, who smacks his head on the court. For what it’s worth, Pitt led the Zags by two at half. The game does not count and is not rescheduled.
December 1: With the Gonzaga game off the ledger, a home game with No. 11 Purdue in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is Pitt’s only shot at a good non-conference win. The Panthers don’t capitalize on the opportunity, losing 72-59. The Panthers have some defensive breakdowns in the second half.
December 28: Pitt makes its season debut in one of the major polls, popping up at 25 in the Coaches. The Panthers are 10-1, but the competition has been very weak. Jamel Artis is coming off a 29-point game and Michael Young dropped at least 20 in three straight in December.
January 9: Pittsburgh starts the game on a 13-0 run and finishes off Notre Dame, 86-82, for a nice road win to improve to 3-0 in the ACC. Young scores 25.
February 9: Needing a stop against Miami to send the game to overtime, Pittsburgh forces a missed jumper but in the scramble for the rebound, Miami’s Angel Rodriguez, who is under 6-feet tall, slaps the ball in with his off hand. The Panthers are in the middle of a three-game losing streak.
February 16: Sloppy at times, Pitt avoids a devastating home loss to Wake Forest, winning 101-96 in double overtime. Robinson hits a step-back three to tie it near the end of regulation and finishes one assist shy of a triple double.
March 9: Billed as a potential NCAA Tournament play-in game (falsely, it turns out, as both teams would get in), Pittsburgh defeats Syracuse for the third time this season. The one-point win comes in the ACC Tournament. Cameron Johnson pours in a career-high 24 points off the bench. The Panthers fall to North Carolina in the quarterfinals the next day.
The road ahead: Even with the big win over Syracuse, the Panthers were on the bubble come Selection Sunday. But, along with the Orange, they were among the last teams to avoid a play-in game and make the field. As a 10 seed, they will face Wisconsin in the first round on Friday in St. Louis. Xavier would very likely be next.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.