Perplexed Pitt left to ponder again

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—Another tremendous regular season, another failed postseason for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and the Panthers.

A No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons, Pitt lost two of its last three games, with only a victory over a No. 16 seed to show for its postseason run.

The Panthers, with three senior leaders showing the way, went 28-6 and won the Big East regular-season title with a 15-3 mark. They advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 10th consecutive time. But a Final Four in this new era of Pitt Basketball still eludes them.

“It’s very tough. I thought this was the year,” Pitt junior guard Ashton Gibbs said. “I was confident. It’s tough for it to end like this.”

A week after losing to UConn 76-74 in the Big East tournament, the Panthers opened up the NCAA convincingly enough with a 74-51 victory over N.C. Asheville. On Saturday, though, their season came to a stunning end, with a 71-70 loss to Butler.

“We’ve had a few losses this year, not a lot, but they’ve all been disappointing. This is a disappointing loss for us,” Dixon said. “We got down and made a number of plays to put ourselves in position, had a lead, and just were not able to close it.”

And that’s become quite a March epidemic for the Panthers. Last year, they lost to Xavier 71-68 in the second round. In 2008, they lost to Michigan State 65-54, also in the second round. And in this 10-year run, the furthest they’ve made it is the Elite Eight, where they lost to Villanova 78-76 in 2009.

“Well, I think everybody remembers the losses. We’ve won a number of the games in the tournament as well,” Dixon said. “I think we’ve been consistently good every year, so everybody looks to us. Other teams have had dropoffs in the regular season, and people get written off. But I think we’re about as consistent as anybody in the country.”

That’s certainly true in the regular season. In the past 10 years, Pitt has been ranked for at least 10 weeks of every season, and was ranked in 20 weeks twice. The Panthers were the No. 1 team in the nation at times in both 2009 and this year. And in that same run of 10 years, the Panthers have played in seven Big East championship games, winning two of them.

“Anytime we’ve lost in the tournament, there’s been no good losses,” Dixon said. “We just gotta keep working harder and keep having great years and keep putting ourselves in the position that we’re in. We just gotta keep doing that. That’s what we’ll do and that’s what we have done. And teams would love to be in our situation.”

Which is true. But this loss signaled the end of the road for senior forward Gilbert Brown, center Gary McGhee, and guard Brad Wanamaker.

“A loss is a loss, regardless of the outcome,” Brown said. “It comes down to the plays that we didn’t make in the game, whether it be on buzzer-beater or the free throw at the end. It hurts all same. And it hurts even more because it’s our last game. We know we’ll never be able to put the jersey on again and go out there and play with our teammates. Everybody on the team is like family, so this being the last game is really an emotional blow to us.”

But, indeed, successful programs are built for the long term, and that’s what Pitt will cling to this offseason. Next year’s recruiting class, after all, will include Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound center from Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts. He is rated as the nation’s top center by many recruiting services and is No. 11 overall on ESPN’s Top 100.

“Nothing really surprises me as far as what can happen,” Dixon said. “You gotta be prepared for everything.”

It’s time to start preparing for next season.

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