Commentary

Pitt's win all about this season

Originally Published: February 21, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Eleven months ago, Jermaine Dixon was charged with stopping Scottie Reynolds on the last play of their game in the Elite Eight.

Instead, the Villanova guard got a step on Dixon and went down the lane and into the annals of the NCAA tournament, scoring a buzzer-beater that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Dixon
Dave Miller/US PresswirePitt's Jermaine Dixon did an effective job against Villanova's Scottie Reynolds this time.

Dixon blamed himself immediately afterward and continued to blame himself a year later.

So when, in the minutes after Pittsburgh's 70-65 win over the Wildcats on Sunday, a reporter asked Dixon what the victory meant to him, it was a legitimate and expected question.

Except Dixon didn't give the expected answer.

"It means we're a step closer to the Big East regular-season title," Dixon said.

While the immediate gratification of revenge might be sweeter to fans, the long-term implications of this win could in fact be far more rewarding for the Panthers.

With Villanova in the rearview mirror, Pitt will be favored to win all four of its remaining games. While penciling in a win in the Big East is always dangerous, at Notre Dame, at St. John's, home against Providence and home against Rutgers isn't a murderers' row.

Meantime, the teams in front of or tied in the win column with the Panthers all have queasier finishing slates.

More important -- Pitt has the tiebreaker against two of the top three, having pulled off victories against Syracuse and Villanova, and splitting with West Virginia.

Quick: Who had Pittsburgh with a chance to win the Big East back in October? (Players' families and girlfriends are disqualified.)

"We believed it," Gilbert Brown said. "We looked at the team we had, the types of players and talent and we had a lot of confidence. We knew a lot of people wrote us off but we thought we were as good as anyone in the country. That was our mindset from the start."

They were certainly among a very small minority.

With DeJuan Blair, Levance Fields and Sam Young off to greener pastures, these Panthers were supposed to be rebuilding. They were picked to finish ninth by the coaches in the preseason, a ranking that didn't seem insulting at all.

We looked at the team we had, the types of players and talent and we had a lot of confidence. We knew a lot of people wrote us off but we thought we were as good as anyone in the country.

-- Pitt's Gilbert Brown

Instead here they are, back among the league leaders as if nothing ever happened.

A team presumably too inexperienced and immature to handle adversity has survived a midseason slump -- which most figured was a sign of the Panthers coming back to Earth -- to reel off five wins in a row, including a triple-overtime battle against West Virginia where they were all but dead in regulation.

Pitt stands at 10-4 in the Big East, with a chance at a 14-4 finish and a nine-game win streak to end the season not even in the realm of the impossible.

(For the record, last year's team was a 1-seed and finished 15-3 in the regular season).

"We're really confident in one another," Brown said. "We also have a willingness to work together and I think that really helped us."

It was all on display against Villanova. In a nip-and-tuck game, where even Pitt's 10-point lead was fleeting, the Panthers didn't outshoot the Wildcats; they just outplayed them. Dixon harassed Scottie Reynolds into six turnovers, Gary McGhee claimed ownership of the paint with 7 points and a critical 10 rebounds and Brown and Ashton Gibbs provided the offense with 16 and 21, respectively.

Pitt controlled the tempo, not so much by playing a slow-down game as by scrapping for loose balls and grabbing 21 offensive rebounds, holding the Wildcats 20 points below their league-leading average.

In a play that all but epitomized the game, Brown made a foolish baseball pass with 55 seconds left and Pitt up only two. The ball was headed out of bounds but Dixon chased it down and flung it back inbounds, where it bounced off a Villanova player.

"When they missed a big shot or a big play, they came up with the second opportunity or the rebound," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "They came up with bigger shots and bigger plays at more important times than we did."

Wright, for one, isn't buying the surprise element of this Pitt team.

He commended Pitt coach Jamie Dixon before and after the game for the job he's done with his team, but said that as he watched game film to prep for this game -- including tape from last year's regional final -- he saw something special brewing.

[+] EnlargeGilbert Brown
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicGilbert Brown brought the house down with a baseline dunk late in the game.

"I think a lot of these guys got that experience last year," Wright said. "They were ready when it was their time."

As for the Wildcats, they have to make sure time doesn't pass them by.

Partnering this loss with the stunner at home to Connecticut on Monday, Villanova dropped consecutive games for the first time since February 2008, ending a streak of 70 games in which the Cats were able to right a loss with a win.

"It's been a long time since we lost back-to-back games," said Reynolds, who finished with 20 points but was held in check most of the game. "I can't hang my head and I can't let the other guys hang theirs either."

But it's the timing of the losses that is most critical. Considered the most tenuous of the presumed No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament field, Villanova is sliding slightly south while Purdue skyrockets north.

"I tell the guys the same thing after we win and after we lose -- it's about the next game," Wright said of the two-game tumble.

And it is. Except the next four games read like a gauntlet of Big East misery -- home against South Florida, at Syracuse, at desperate Cincinnati and home against West Virginia. The Wildcats very well could go from being half of a much-anticipated showdown with Syracuse for Big East supremacy to hoping they can keep a foothold among the top four.

The yin to Villanova's yang, naturally, is the fortunes of Pittsburgh.

Nothing will erase the sting of the loss to Villanova last year. The Wildcats went to the Final Four; the Panthers went home.

But as Dixon wisely put it: "Last year is in the past for us."

The future is now. And it suddenly looks pretty good.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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