Team preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

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(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)


The numbers are remarkable and they have been brandished proudly like a badge. The numbers became the powerful backbone for a Pittsburgh program that could boast it had developed into a national model of con-sistency. And the numbers were passed along, player-to-player and class-to-class, as incentive and motivation.

The most important number was 10. That was the number of consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament for a Pitt program that prided itself on keeping that streak going.

Over the last 11 years, Pitt ranks among the nation's top five programs in winning percentage (.758, 295-94). During that remarkable run, the Panthers never reached the Final Four. But they did go to the NCAA Elite Eight once, made five Sweet 16 appearances and won six Big East titles.

But in 2011-12, the streak came to a screeching halt. After 10 consecutive trips to the NCAAs, the Panthers simply could not keep it going. It was strange for Big East followers to witness because under coach Jamie Dixon, the bar has been raised dramatically high.

When Pitt traveled to Connecticut on March 3 for the regular season finale, it was the first time since Dec. 4, 1996 -- and 21 meetings -- that the two Big East powers collided and neither were ranked. To further illustrate the drop-off, Pitt fell behind by its largest halftime deficit of the season at 14 points, only to shoot 63 percent in the second half and tie the game, only to lose, 74-65.

That was Pitt's season in a nutshell.

"I thought for a stretch there we were about as good as we've been all year long," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. "We've shown stretches for a good amount of time, but not quite long enough."

Thanks to injuries that never really allowed the Panthers to find the rhythm of their season, Dixon found himself saying that over and over. Pitt was 16-15 overall and 5-13 in conference play heading into the Big East tournament as the No. 13 seed at Madison Square Garden -- site of so many the Panthers' special moments.

"[The losing] gets magnified and what's interesting is that what you've done in the past gets talked about even more -- more than when you did it," Dixon said. "It gets recognized and maybe more appreciated at the same time."

Why did Pitt suddenly experience a season with so much frustration and defeat? The answer is pretty simple. Just look at the final statistics sheet for the season. Pitt played 39 games and point guard Tray Woodall (11.7 ppg, 6.1 apg) appeared in only 28. He still managed to lead the Panthers with 171 assists and was second in scoring, but Pitt needed his consistent presence at the point, and groin and abdominal injuries prevented that.

Woodall averaged 14.1 points through the first seven games. Then the injury hit and he missed 11 of the next 12 games. He was 0 of 5 shooting and was held scoreless when he tried to play against Notre Dame on Dec. 27. Then he would miss the first five games of January.

Pitt went 5-7 in that 12-game stretch, including a seven-game losing streak. When Woodall returned, the Panthers lost their first game to Louisville. And after four straight wins, there was another losing streak -- this time five straight and six of seven.

"When he got back, he obviously wasn't completely healthy," Dixon said. "He played good, but never to the level of where he was when he went down. … There's no good way to handle an injury to your starting point guard. Just ask the Chicago Bulls [about Derrick Rose]."

The Panthers had other distractions. Freshman forward Khem Birch unexpectedly decided to transfer in early December. Forward Dante Taylor (5.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) had migraine headaches, ankle problems, and injured his back in practice. Senior forward Nasir Robinson started every game and averaged 10.6 points and 6.5 rebounds but played with knee pain left over from the season before.

"Guys were not practicing and Travon was out far longer than we anticipated," Dixon said. "Then he came back and went out again. We were constantly reinventing ourselves as a team."