I remember my lowest moment as a Panther fan. It was around 3pm during the Panthers first round game my sophomore year in 2005 in the WPTS radio studios. I was slated to do the postgame show for an apparent first round victory against Pacific. Why shouldn’t we be overconfident? The Panthers had been to the Sweet 16 three consecutive years. We had an all-world big man in Chris Taft, the explosive X-man Carl Krauser (from the Bronx), and the veteran Chevon Troutman leading our team. Sure our 2004-05 squad was shaky heading into the game, coming off a season which saw our first loss at home to a non-conference opponent (Bucknell), three straight losses during the season (Nova, WVU, UConn), lost in the first round of the Big East Tourney, and had one of our role players in the Pitt Blotter in one of several strange incidents that season.
Well that Pitt team lost to Pacific in the first round 79-71. It wasn’t even that close, even with the Panthers cutting the lead to 4 late. I did the radio show trying to contemplate how Pitt Basketball could fall so low as to lose in the first round. I hoped to never have that feeling again.
Well the feeling came back, even worse on Wednesday night. When Pitt lost by 19. At home.
It was the 5th straight loss during the worse stretch of games I have ever witnessed as a Panthers fan, even more than the end of that 2005 season. This loss especially, to Rutgers, was historically bad. The Panthers scored only 39 points. That’s right, the Panthers couldn’t even score 1 point a minute. It was the lowest point output since December 1973, the lowest at home since 1950, and they NEVER scored that low in Big East play. Words cannot describe 21% shooting from the field (what made it worse is that I was watching the Wizards perform just as bad in Chicago during time-outs). But how do you explain getting outrebounded by 20 to Rutgers…RUTGERS!!! The Panthers never get outrebounded like that. My how the mighty have fallen.
This season has been a struggle for the Panthers ever since Tray Woodall injured his abdominal and groin. The offense has been woeful. Ashton Gibbs NBA stock has nose-dived as it becomes clearer that this guy has to play off someone else. No one else is capable of getting their own shot as well. The perimeter defense has been non-existent from the Wagner game until now. The Panthers All-American recruits have all but disappeared, literally. Dante Taylor, slated to be a starter, looks like he has had too many late nights snacking on O’s fries (if you went to Pitt you know what I am talking about). Khem Birch left the program in December to transfer to UNLV. In short, the program is a mess right now.
Over the years, the Panthers never had players with all-world talent. It was a blue-collar team that played a black-and-blue style for the steel city. The bruising squads over the years would outmuscle and outeffort teams to great success. The most talented squad was the 2008-09 team with DeJuan Blair with no knees, Levance Fields who wasn’t good at any one thing, and Sam Young who wasn’t a superstar. Pitt always supplemented their marginal talent with hustle and tenacity. And it create a wave of success for Jamie Dixon and the Pitt Basketball program.
What’s most disappointing now is that there is no more hustle and tenacity with this Pitt squad. As the Rutgers lead grew, the Panthers effort dwindled. That is evident by getting outrebounded by 20. As Cardiac Hill describes it in their blog, Nasir Robinson was the player of the game for the Panthers with this line: Five turnovers, 3-9 from the field for seven points, and nine rebounds. The Panthers have been defanged, the Oakland Zoo is now an aquarium.
The problems with Pitt may not be solved with Woodall coming back. Gone is Brad Wanamaker that added the offense punch that Gibbs seems to have lost. Gone are Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee who played the tough defense that Talib Zanna and Taylor seem ill-equipped and/or uninterested in playing. The Pitt program has been built on young guys biding their time on the bench, learning from veteran players. That is why Fields, Wanamaker and McGhee did well; they sat behind Krauser, Antonio Graves and Blair respectively. It seems that Dixon has lost this team this year.
With their next three games against ranked opponents – including #1 Syracuse, things look like it’s going to get worse for the Panthers. What looked as just a hiccup for the Panthers could be an avalanche of disaster for the team. Even if they do not have the firepower to be .500 in the Big East, all I ask for is the effort and toughness that made this program a consistent threat year in and year out. Because right now, not only does it suck to lose, it sucks that the Panthers have lost their bite.