Friedlander: Pre-tournament reset has Pittsburgh 'dialed in' for NCAA run
GREENSBORO, NC – It’s something of a clichè to say that the NCAA Tournament is a new season.
But in the case of the Pitt Panthers, it really has been.
Just 1 win from clinching at least a share of the ACC regular-season championship, they stumbled to the finish line by losing their final 2 games, then got blown out by Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.
Not only did the balky finish cost them a banner to put into Petersen Events Center rafters, it got Jeff Capel’s team relegated to the First Four and a game it had to win just to get into the main NCAA Midwest Region bracket.
That Selection Sunday disappointment must have lit a fire under the 11th-seeded Panthers.
Because they were a different team by the time they got to Dayton.
“The credit goes to these guys,” Capel, the ACC’s Coach of the Year, said of his players. “When we came back for the selection show and once we knew we were going (to the tournament), they were really, really dialed in.”
The renewed focus helped Pitt withstand some early foul trouble to 2nd-leading scorer Jamarius Burton and grind out a 60-59 win against a physical Mississippi State team on Tuesday.
It was even more evident Friday against No. 6 seed Iowa State in Greensboro.
The Panthers put the hammer down from the opening tap, building a 22-2 lead over the opening 10 minutes and withstanding a late 1st-half Cyclones run before pulling away again for a 59-41 victory that sends them into Sunday’s Round of 32 against No. 3 seed Xavier.
It was a performance much more reminiscent of the Pitt team that broke into the national rankings during the final week of February than the one that blew a tire heading to the finish line in early March.
In retrospect, sneaking into polls at No. 25 was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Panthers.
Coaches can talk all they like about tuning out the noise and taking it one game at a time. But that’s exactly what Pitt got caught doing.
“We never talked about it, but we knew if we could go to Notre Dame and win, we’d at least win a share (of the ACC regular-season crown),” Capel said. “We didn’t. I thought we were deflated.
“I thought we came back and played our butts off against Miami, a pretty good team. And they had a kid that made 6 3s against us. We were emotionally drained. Then we regrouped.”
Especially on defense.
Tuesday, the Panthers held Mississippi State to 38% shooting from the floor, 6-of-23 on 3-pointers and forced 14 turnovers.
Friday, they were even better against Iowa State. The Cyclones went the first 10:05 before making their 1st field goal and were only 14-of-60 for the game (23.%). That included going 2-for-20 from beyond the arc.
“We knew that the last of the season we had a chance to do something big, but we didn’t because of our defense,” said graduate guard Greg Elliott, 1 of 3 Panthers to score in double figures Friday. “Everybody wanted to say it, but we knew. Our defense wasn’t up to par. We knew if we wanted to win games in March, you have to play defense and rebound.”
Their 2-0 record in the NCAA Tournament is a testament to that.
It’s a revelation the Panthers came to organically. There was no ranting and raving by the coaching staff. No extra wind sprints or marathon practices.
Just a reminder by Capel to his players to do a better job of understanding the scouting report and paying attention to detail.
A players-only meeting also factored into the equation. Not to mention a healthy dose of disrespect from the selection committee.
“We’ve had something to prove since the preseason, (when they) ranked us 14th in our conference,” graduate guard Nelly Cummings said. “We’ve had a chip on our shoulder since the first time we saw that. Dayton was just another example.”
And now, add Greensboro.
But as much of a motivating factor as that chip continues to be, it’s important for the Panthers to have learned their lesson from the regular season and not let it become their main focus as they head into Sunday’s 2nd round.
Capel is already taking steps to keep that from happening.
“We just talked about ‘let’s get back to being us,” he said. “Who we are is good enough.”
So far, it has.