PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sheldon Jeter didn’t dodge the question or put some kind of positive spin on it.
Yes, the NCAA tournament bid Pittsburgh seemed to lock up with a blowout win over Duke a week ago is now very much in danger heading into the ACC tournament. A 3-6 mark down the stretch — including a pair of road losses at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech — will do that.
“Now we know to get into the (NCAAs), in our minds we have to make a deep run (at ACCs),” the junior forward said Monday. If not, he said, “in our minds we’ll probably be in the NIT again.”
It’s becoming a familiar scenario for the Panthers (20-10, 9-9 ACC), who have spent most of Dixon’s tenure wondering not if they’ll make the NCAA field but how highly they’ll be seeded. That’s not the case anymore. Pitt entered last spring’s ACC tourney in need of at least one win (and probably two) of getting into March Madness. The Panthers ended up getting blown out by N.C. State then sleepwalking through an NIT home loss to George Washington to end an underwhelming season.
A year later, the stakes are strikingly similar. Pitt went a combined 3 for 32 from 3-point range while falling to the improving Hokies and Yellow Jackets, the offense that hummed with efficiency at times losing its shooting touch at the absolute worst time.
Jeter acknowledged the Panthers weren’t “ready to shoot” when they caught the ball. While Dixon pointed to strong starts in both games that his team wasn’t overconfident after dismantling the Blue Devils 76-62 on Feb. 28, given an opportunity to lock up an NCAA bid the Panthers lost their way in the second half twice in the span of four days.
“We need to have an urgency throughout the game and not just in bits and pieces,” Jeter said.
A reprieve may await in Washington, D.C., at least on Wednesday against Syracuse. The Panthers swept the season series from the Orange and are 13-6 in their last 19 against their longtime Big East turned ACC rival. The trip is also a homecoming for senior point guard James Robinson, who grew up in the D.C. suburbs and has left his mother to handle voluminous ticket requests. Robinson would prefer to extend his team’s stay — and maybe his college career — as long as possible.
“Obviously we don’t want to finish the season like we did last year,” Robinson said. “Everybody has just got to be ready to play (but) beating team three times in one season hard.”
While Robinson doesn’t exactly glue himself to the Internet in search of the latest projections, he’s well aware of how the precarious position the Panthers are in as they prepare for what essentially could be an NCAA elimination game against the seriously bubblicious Orange.
“That’s pretty much what we’ve been hearing,” Robinson said. “We’ve just got to get it done.”
Something Pitt did with great regularity in Dixon’s first eight seasons on the job. Yet the Panthers have qualified for the tournament just twice in the past four years and haven’t advanced past the first weekend of the NCAAs since 2009. Dixon remains typically bullish, stressing his program’s mindset doesn’t change this time of year regardless of the circumstances.
“It’s never over until (Selection) Sunday,” he said. “Things can change. Anything can happen. We’ve said no matter where we were fighting for: one-seed, a four-seed, a 10-seed, we’ve got to play well.”
A fire alarm briefly blared while Dixon spoke. He talked over the noise, something he will continue to do as the Panthers continue a search for consistency that’s been elusive for the last two years. He brushed off whether he was considering leaving, saying a rumor UNLV was seeking to lure him west was “the first I heard about it.”
Hearing his name floated out is nothing new for Dixon, who is signed for 2023. He’d rather focus on an extended run in the nation’s capital, one he believes the Panthers are capable of despite a lackluster finish.
“I think everybody goes in there feeling like it’s wide open and the standings show that,” he said. “We believe that too.”