Despite the dismal ending to their regular season, the Pitt Panthers will start dancing in the NCAA tournament March 16. Pitt finished out the season by losing four of their last eight -- including the last two, to WVU in Morgantown and, more distressingly, to Seton Hall at the Pete. But they followed up these inauspicious final eight games with a strong Big East tourney performance.
So what we can expect from the Panthers in the NCAA invitational?
The big question for Pitt heading into the Big East Tournament was this: Could they regroup to regain the form they showed against Cincinnati and Providence in mid-February? It certainly was not a good omen that the Panthers couldn't even manage to pull out a win against Seton Hall -- a win they desperately wanted to secure a bye in the Big East.
The late-season woes are attributable to many sources, none more important than Carl Krauser playing more erratic and headstrong basketball this season than he's played since his first year at Pitt. Krauser threw up bricks from all over the place, and seemingly refused to dish the ball to his teammates. In those final two regular-season losses, he averaged an unbelievable 20 percent shooting percentage from the floor. (Things aren't much better for perennial media darling Duke: Their own much-lauded superstar, J.J. Reddick, shot 36 percent and 24 percent, respectively, in Duke's last two regular-season games, losses to Florida State and UNC.)
Carl Krauser is one thing: consistently inconsistent. Sometimes (such as in the first half against Louisville in the Big East Tourney) he's Fourth of July fireworks. Other times (the Seton Hall Game) he's like that box of sparklers that sat out in the rain over night.
Krauser's recklessness is exacerbated by the fact that the whole team has often been sloppy, turning routine passes into momentum-killing turnovers with alarming frequency.
In their Big East tournament win over the Mountaineers, Pitt struggled against West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone. The presence of Sam Young and Aaron Gray down low eventually worn down the Mountaineers. In the first half, Pitt just looked like they had no idea what to do -- because, really, when you take a good hard look at the Panthers, you see that they do not have great ball-handlers who dribble well.
Couple those difficulties with that perennial Pitt bugaboo, poor free-throw shooting, and you've got a pretty mercurial team heading into the NCAA. Come on, guys: How hard is it to shoot free throws? Isn't it mostly a matter or repetition and practice? It's inconceivable that guys who can hit from 3-point range with a man in their face cannot hit from the charity line with a clear view of the basket. Pitt's team free-throw shooting percentage of 68 percent for the regular season is typical, though they're capable of playing worse. Against Louisville in the Big East tourney, they shot an anemic 65.5 percent from the line, nearly giving that game away in the waning minutes. But just because we've seen this before doesn't make it explicable. Or excusable.
On those rare occasions that they've managed a respectable percentage on their free throws, like the 87.5 percent they posted against West Virginia, they've won. (It can't be just that simple, can it?) Equally impressive in that win was that Pitt overcame a seven-point halftime deficit and cooled off the Mountaineers by just bearing down and daring them to go inside. It was the hard-court equivalent of a one-two knockdown punch.
This far into March, Pitt is still a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery in an enigma. (I hear Churchill was a huge hoops fan.) Are the Panthers the same team that mounted a comeback in the Garden against West Virginia? Or the same team that lost to a must-win game to a mediocre Seton Hall?
Actually, they're both. I just hope the former shows up for March Madness. But even if they go in the tank, I'm hoping to handle it better than last year when I threw my bracket sheet at the TV and missed. This year will be different: If the Panthers can hit free throws, I can hit the TV.