Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Panthers re-establish old Big East legacy in final years of conference tournament

The Panthers lost, 62-59, to Syracuse in their Big East tournament opener on Thursday afternoon to close out the program's final chapter in the legendary conference before heading to the ACC next season (provided they don't meet up with a Big East foe in the NCAA tournament) and will now wait to see where they begin play in the Big Dance, starting next Thursday or Friday.

In terms of what the loss means to Pitt's NCAA seeding, it probably doesn't mean much. In Joe Lunardi's latest pre-Selection Sunday bracket, he has the Panthers as the 5th seed in the West. I don't know if it was updated before or after Thursday's loss to the Orangemen, but I can't imagine Pitt dropping much below a 6th seed at this point.

A nice run MAY have elevated the Panthers to a 4th seed, but 4th, 5th, 6th, what's the difference, really?

It's just a shame the Panthers exited Big East tournament play on such a sour note because it was similar to how they exited Madison Square Garden for many years in the 80's and 90's.

For nearly two decades, Pitt's participation in the Big East tournament was on par with a jobber wrestler's at a Garden-hosted battle royal. In other words, the program was usually one and done. In fact, the Panthers never won more than one game in any conference tournament, even during the late 80's, when they had the likes of Charles Smith, Jerome Lane and Sean Miller on the roster.

It wasn't until the 2001 tournament that the spell was lifted in a rather improbable fashion, when Pitt, a league doormat in the late-90's under Head Coach Ralph Willard, entered the tournament under new Head Coach Ben Howland after barely finishing over .500 in the regular season and won three games in three nights to reach the program's first conference final.

The Panthers lost to Boston College, unfortunately, but this proved to be a catalyst for future tournament success, as they would go on to reach the conference final a total of seven times in eight seasons and captured championships in 2003 and 2008.

The '08 championship was especially satisfying, as Pitt won four games in four nights and polished what could have been a 7-10 seed in the NCAA tournament into a No. 4 seed.

However, the Panthers soon returned to their former, downtrodden legacy and only won one conference tournament game over the last five seasons.

Oh well, the best Pitt team I ever witnessed, the one that reached the Elite Eight behind Dejaun Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields, lost in the opening round of the '09 Big East tournament. And that '08 championship team? It lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Michigan State.

It just would have been nice to see Pitt return to its mid-00's legacy for just one final weekend at the Garden.

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