Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pitt Panthers bow out of NCAA Tournament- What went wrong?

Saturday night, the Pitt Panthers season came to an abrupt halt at the hands of the Villanova Wildcats. It doesn't matter that the Panthers bowed out on a buzzer beater that will be seen forever now. Scottie Reynolds heroics will be seen every time they show great tournament moments.

It doesn't matter that the Panthers lost a classic tournament game. One that will be shown on ESPN Classic every time they show tournament games. This Panthers team was supposed to be in Detroit next week, leaving Panthers fans everywhere asking just one question- What went wrong?

Plenty of things went wrong for this team. One is that they were clearly a different team from the beat down WVU gave them in the Big East Tournament until last night's buzzer beater loss. You don't believe me, well here is a list.

1. The two guard spot was worthless. The Brad Wannamaker/Jermaine Dixon combo gave the Panthers next to nothing the entire NCAA tourney. The duo which averaged nearly 15 points combined through the regular season gave the Panthers no production in the tourney. It got to the point that Wannamaker looked terrified to touch the ball, much less shoot it in the Nova loss.

2. Tyrell Biggs also disappeared. The senior four man went scoreless in his final two collegiate games. Being such a well balanced team all season, the Panthers were essentially playing with 3 offensive players vs 5 in the Nova game.

3. Ashton Gibbs and the bench went ice cold. Gibbs missed wide open jumpers he usually knocked down. No one off the bench provided anything, other than a little Gilbert Brown here and there.

4. Defense. the once awesome Panthers defense only showed up when they wanted to, when they needed to play every possession. Dejuan Blair is so scared of fouling that he hasn't played defense in a month. He never rotated from the weak side and had plenty of chances to challenge shots which he didn't.

All the struggles aside, Did Nova take the game away from the Panthers or did the Panthers throw it away? Just like we have seen from time to time in the NCAA's. Not taking anything away from the Wildcats, but the Panthers had plenty of opportunities to win this game.

If anything, this game showed that first half execution is just as important as executing down the stretch. The Panthers didn't play well the first ten minutes, BUT came back. The Panthers went up as much as five, with an opportunity to extend the lead, but an awful Jermaine Dixon turnover and subsequent foul, followed by a Sam Young travel really hurt the Panthers. In a span of 45 seconds, the Panthers went from up 5 with a chance to extend to down 1. BUT the Panthers still hung tough and when all seemed lost, they made a play and hit free throws to tie the game.

Give Jay Wright credit for drawing up the game winning play and give the Wildcats players the credit for executing it to perfection. BUT the Panthers shouldn't have been in that situation.

Two things cost the Panthers. The first being free throw shooting. I said it all year that it would cost them and it sure did. While the kids from Nova knocked down 22 of 23 from the charity stripe, the Panthers converted on only 21 of 29 free throws. Now 72% isn't a bad day for the Panthers, but it's not the 96% that Nova shot. Every point matters in tight tourney games. Weather it was Brown and Wannamaker constantly knocking down only 1 of every 2 in the first half, or Blair's 2 for 6 performance, it cost them a trip to Detroit.

One instance occurred when the Panthers were down 1 and Blair going to the line. Instead of being up 1 or tied, Blair bricked the front end of a 1 and 1 and naturally the Wildcats hit a transition 3 to up the lead to 4. Little things win you games and Nova did more of them.

The other thing the Panthers did to cost them a Final Four trip was not get Blair enough touches. Nova had no answer for him. Blair was a perfect 9 for 9 from the floor. No one on that team can guard him and when they double him, Blair is good enough passer to kick the ball out for an open look from the perimeter. The Panthers made no effort to get Blair enough touches and that also cost them in the end.

It's a tough way to watch Blair, Fields and Young go out. Knowing they will never play another game together. It's nobody's fault, sometime you just get beat. Years from now, these Panthers will look back and realize they accomplished alot as a team. Being ranked #1 for the first time in the program's history, defeating the #1 team in the nation for the first time (twice), getting the school's first #1 seed, finally advancing past the Sweet 16 are all things that this group can look back on and be proud of.

That won't be for a long time though. This loss stings, and will continue to sting for a long time.

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