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March 7, 2012

A streak ends for Pitt

As the seconds ticked away at the end of Pitt's loss to Georgetown in the second round of the Big East Tournament on Wednesday afternoon, the sense of finality stretched beyond the breadth of one game.

The Hoyas' thorough 64-52 defeat of the Panthers didn't just knock Pitt out of the conference championship; it ended a decade of success that was unparalleled in school history.

In the last ten years Pitt won 273 total games and 124 Big East games. The Panthers averaged just over seven losses per season; in conference play their average yearly loss total was a little more than four. Pitt won 79.4% of its games over the last ten years, good enough to be among the top five in win percentage nationally and better than any other Big East school in that stretch.

With the loss to Georgetown, Pitt has a 17-16 record this season, marking the fewest total wins since the Panthers went 13-15 in 1999-00.

Wednesday's loss also brought the unofficial close to the Panthers' 10-year run of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Only seven schools in the nation could make that claim, and Pitt was one of them. Now the Panthers are left hoping for an unlikely NIT bid.

How does a team fall from earning No. 1 seeds in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments to being on the bubble for the NIT? How does a consistently-successful program make a one-year shift from Big East regular season champions to 13th the following season? How does a perennial win-stacker find itself with five wins in the months of January and February combined?

As always, it's complicated.

Pitt's issues were many this season. The Panthers played 11 games without point guard Travon Woodall, while senior forward Nasir Robinson struggled with a knee injury all season. But the problems went deeper than that.

Throughout the season, Pitt got virtually nothing from its post players. Centers Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna combined to average 11.2 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, and against Georgetown Taylor and Zanna scored eight total points and grabbed all of three rebounds.

Senior guard Ashton Gibbs also came in well below expectations this season, with significant drops in field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage after being named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year.

And there were team-wide issues, like defense (Big East opponents shot 45.3% against Pitt), ball security (conference teams forced the Panthers into an average of 14.4 turnovers per game), and inexperience.

But the reasons this Pitt team posted the worst performance of any this century extend even beyond those tangible sources. When these Panthers faced adversity, they wilted. Rather than showing the resiliency of the Brandin Knight-led "We all we got" Panthers of the early 2000's, this year's team never seemed to find the power to will itself back.

Of course, maybe that's more about talent and ability and chemistry and experience. Either way, this Pitt team couldn't manufacture whatever it is that leads to victory. And when things got tight, these Panthers usually found ways to loosen them up for the other team (see the turnover-foul-technical foul sequence as Pitt's six-point lead over Georgetown turned into an eight-point deficit at halftime).

In the end, the 2011-12 Panthers produced the worst season in the Resurgence Era of Pitt basketball, leaving only one relevant question:

Will next year be any better?

Pitt will lose Gibbs and Robinson after this season but will add five-star center Steven Adams and four-star guard James Robinson in the recruiting class. The Panthers will have Woodall presumably healthy for the entire season in 2012-13. And they should have more mature and developed versions of J.J. Moore, Lamar Patterson, and John Johnson.

But will they be any better? This year's team returned a number of players who were expected to perform a whole lot better than they actually did. Those expectations led to a preseason top-ten ranking and a host of other accolades that, by midseason, were referenced only as evidence of the Panthers' fall, and therein lies the worst fear of the Pitt fan:

For the first time in this era of Pitt basketball, the program looks vulnerable. In what is supposed to be a period of onward-and-upward progression as the University prepares for a move to the ACC, Pitt basketball has taken a step back. And because this is the first regression the program has experienced since launching into the upper levels of college basketball ten years ago, it's only natural to wonder if the Panthers can rebound.

While Jamie Dixon is still looking for success in the postseason, he could always be counted on for a strong regular-season performance and a better-than-even chance of competing in the NCAA Tournament. But now Pitt's ninth-year head coach has endured a season where he couldn't pull the Panthers out of their funk.

In all likelihood, the struggles of this season will pass. Chances are pretty high that Pitt will bounce back and put together another 20-win season next year and start a new NCAA Tournament streak. But in the aftermath of this season, in the aftermath of 17-16 and 5-13, in the aftermath of Long Beach State and Wagner and Rutgers and DePaul and three sub-40 performances and, in the end, a 12-point loss to Georgetown that felt like a 22-point loss, Pitt fans can be forgiven if it takes a little time to rebuild the confidence.

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