PITTSBURGH (AP)—The expanded NCAA tournament field—now at 68 teams—has thrown a wrinkle into the art of scouting an opponent for Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon.
His Panthers, who earned a No. 1 seed Sunday for the second time in three years, will open with a second-round game Thursday in Washington against the winner of Tuesday’s first-round game between North Carolina-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock.
|ONE AND DONE—Connecticut’s Kemba Walker drives past Pitt‘s Brad Wanamaker during the first half of the Big East Championship, March 10, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Connecticut defeated Pittsburgh 76-74. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
It is one of four such games involving three additional selections to the field, the first expansion since the tournament added one team in 2001, giving it 65.
Dixon took it all in stride. After all, a No. 1 seed is a No. 1 seed, and the Panthers will take what comes with it.
“It’s a little bit unique, but I’d rather be in this position than be a 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 seed,” Dixon said. “It’s part of being a 1 seed. I think we can adapt and get ready for it. At least, we’ll have a recent game of them to watch.”
The Panthers, placed in the Southeast Region, will hope for a better outcome than the last time they earned a No. 1 seed.
Pitt’s only other top seed was in 2009, when it beat East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State and Xavier to reach the Elite Eight. But a 78-76 loss to Big East counterpart Villanova on a last-second shot by Scottie Reynolds kept Pitt from reaching just its second Final Four.
Two years later, they earned the lofty spot again, despite another early exit from the Big East tournament.
“Obviously, we’re excited about the No. 1 seed,” Dixon said. “But at this point, it doesn’t mean a lot.”
Pitt (27-5)—ousted from the Big East tournament last week with a 76-74 loss to Connecticut in the quarterfinals after earning a double bye for a third consecutive season—became the fourth Big East team in three seasons to earn a No. 1 seed after being upset in the league quarterfinals.
“Without a doubt, we’ve got something to prove,” said Pitt senior forward Gilbert Brown, one of three Panthers averaging double figures. “We were up 12, we were dominating the boards, making great plays, playing together. And then, in the second part of the second half, UConn really took it to us, outrebounding us and really taking advantage, and the momentum swung in their favor.”
The Panthers are among a record 11 Big East teams to reach the NCAA tournament in a season.
“It is an amazing number,” Dixon said. “Mathematically, it’s almost an impossibility. But everything kind of fell into place for it to happen where there was separation between the bottom five and those 11 teams, and then those 11 took care of business outside of the conference to put us in position.”
Pitt’s opponent will be an automatic bid team, one way or the other. North Carolina-Asheville (19-13) won the Big South, and Arkansas-Little Rock (19-16) won the Sun Belt. Pitt has never faced either team.
North Carolina-Asheville, coached by Pittsburgh native Ed Biedenbach, won their league title by beating Coastal Carolina in the championship game. Arkansas-Little Rock won four games in as many days in their league, edging defending champion North Texas in the title game.
“We want to win our first game first and then go step by step,” Dixon said. “That’s the only way to do it. We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a No. 1 seed, and we’re going to play other good teams.”
Florida earned the No. 2 seed in the Southeast and will play No. 15 UC Santa Barbara in Thursday’s first round.
This is Pitt’s ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament and 23rd overall. The Panthers, who edged Notre Dame for the Big East regular-season title, have never won a national championship, making it to the Final Four just once. In the 1941 national semifinals, the Panthers lost to Wisconsin, 36-30.
“What we’ve done in the past is good, but it doesn’t mean a lot once you start playing in the tournament,” Dixon said. “We’ve got to go and play good basketball and we’ve got to get better in these couple of days.”