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Panthers Get Little Bounce From Schedule

Should Pitt take more chances?

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What the hell is going on around here? Bill Murray said it best in Ghostbusters: "Up is down, black is white, cats and dogs sleeping together -- it's total anarchy out there." The sports world has flip-flopped. Cursed Sox franchises (both Red and White) have won back-to-back World Series, and the Cincinnati Bungles have won the AFC North crown. The University of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, finished a dismal football season by watching West Virginia upset Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

The fact that West Virginia University boasts a stronger football program than Pitt is something we'll have to live with -- for now, at least. That WVU's basketball program is in better position for the future than Pitt's, however, is harder to swallow. At the very least, WVU's basketball program takes bigger risks.

Fortune favors the bold, Goethe once said. (Or was it John Wooden?) Yet it's been a tradition for Pitt to schedule a veritable cupcake-walk before Big East conference games. That's been the modus operandi in both its men's basketball and football programs, although football coach Dave Wannstedt changed things a bit this year, opening his football season with Notre Dame and Nebraska before taking on the Big East. Could Dave be smart enough to follow West Virginia's lead? Could Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon do likewise?

Before launching into its Big East schedule, which opened with a dramatic double-OT game against Notre Dame last week, Pitt played (brace yourself): St. Peters, Maine, St. Francis of New York, Penn State, Duquesne, Coppin State, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Disregard the quality (or lack thereof) of the opposition provided by Penn State and Duquesne. Those are local feuds, and there's a lot to be said for maintaining such connections. But Maine?

What's amazing is that this line-up is actually tougher than the opposition Pitt faced last year. Vermont knocked off Syracuse in the first round of last year's NCAA tourney, and Coppin State is a regular March Madness invitee. Wisconsin's program was ranked 22nd in the nation when it played Pitt.

Even so, compared to the Mountaineers' pre-conference schedule, Pitt's schedule constitutes -- if not a cakewalk -- at least a scone- or muffin-walk. While Pitt was busy dusting Maine and St. Francis of New York, Kevin Pittsnogle and Co. were facing Kentucky, Texas, LSU and Oklahoma.

OK, OK -- they lost some of those games, which no doubt hurt them in the rankings. But WVU clearly believes that testing oneself against quality opposition is its own reward. (Just as scheduling pansies carries its own risks -- like actually losing to one of them. Losing to a team like, say, Bucknell, could really hurt your program's rankings and psyche.) If nothing else, scheduling tough games is a pragmatic way to move up the food chain -- not to mention garnering more national airtime. What are the odds ESPN will televise Pitt versus St. Peters, when it could be showing WVU versus Texas?

Pitt seems to be moving in WVU's direction. Is this a permanent philosophical shift, or next season will we watch the Panthers play the Little Sisters of the Boondocks? Or will we finally be treated to matchups with quality opposition from the Big 10, the SEC and the sacred ACC?

Conversely, one could argue that because the Big East is such a tough basketball conference, why shouldn't Pitt pad its pre-conference schedule? The Big East features such basketball powerhouses as Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse, UConn and Villanova. Not to mention those pesky Mountaineers. It's such a tough conference that basketball behemoth UConn was shocked by newcomer Marquette in its first Big East battle last week.

The proof's in the pudding, I suppose. Last year, a battle-scarred WVU team -- which had played LSU, Coppin State and NC State -- very nearly pulled off a shocker against Louisville in its Elite Eight match-up. Frankly, it was stunning that WVU was playing in the round of eight at all: Pitt was badly embarrassed in the first round by Pacific. Who? Pacific.

The important question facing Pitt is: Was WVU's tourney run aided by the Mountaineers measuring themselves against the big boys early? Perhaps the Panthers can vault from their comfortable plateau to the next level by choosing to take on the crème de la crème of college hoops.

Or maybe West Virginia simply has better athletes and coaches.

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