Pitt men's basketball team's downfall had many roots
NEW YORK — There were those same four words again.
The familiar refrain was repeated by Pitt players this season more times than coach Jamie Dixon cares to remember. They said it after losses to Long Beach State and South Florida and Rutgers. And others.
And there they were, again, following the 64-52 loss to fifth-seeded Georgetown on Wednesday in the second round of the Big East Tournament. The Panthers collected a season-low 25 rebounds and shuffled quietly into the waiting-for-the-NIT realm.
"They wanted it more," senior forward Nasir Robinson said.
What those four words entail was one of the obvious problems for Pitt (17-16), which will learn if it is playing in the NIT for the first time since 2001 on Sunday night.
Sophomore Lamar Patterson was equally as disgusted, saying "We played like a bunch of little boys out there."
But what other factors — save desire — caused one of the most consistent programs in college basketball to fall from a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament and a top-10 preseason pick to a 13th-place team in the Big East laboring through its worst season in a decade?
Injuries, turnovers, team defense, overall leadership, Ashton Gibbs' subpar season, and Khem Birch's defection all played a part in a disappointing season that included Pitt's first loss to a Northeast Conference school in 71 tries (Wagner); seven losses at Petersen Events Center, including its lowest-scoring game in 38 years (38 vs. Rutgers) and its most lopsided home loss to West Virginia (66-48) in 40 years.
Pitt, which had never lost more than three consecutive games under Dixon, had an eight-game losing streak and a five-game losing streak — in a 65-day span.
Gibbs, who went from preseason Player of the Year to a no-show on any of the All-Big East teams, took the blame, saying, "I did a bad job of leading this year, and it clearly showed."
The senior guard, who dipped his toes in the NBA draft waters last year before returning for his final season, shot 32.8 percent from 3-point range, by far his career low, and struggled on defense for stretches. Perhaps more importantly, he wasn't an outgoing leader and had poor body language. Gibbs, who declined to talk to the media after almost every late-season loss, said, "I didn't live up as a senior leader," while surrounded by reporters in Pitt's open locker room at the Garden after the Georgetown loss.
But knowing how hard Gibbs works, it's hard to lay too much on him. His demeanor was certainly more about a senior whose final season turned into a crushing letdown.
What about the injuries• Robinson's preseason knee surgery and Woodall's groin injury drew the national headlines, but there were more absences from practice this season than at any time in Dixon's tenure. Robinson and Woodall were never fully healthy, and 11 different players started.
When Gibbs was asked about the roots of Pitt's down season, he cited injuries first and Birch's transfer second. When the McDonald's All-American departed after 10 games, eventually landing at UNLV, it shuffled Pitt's rotation, took away an interior defensive presence and had an effect in the locker room. Pitt finished 15th in the Big East in field-goal percentage defense.
Turnovers lost multiple games for Pitt. And like it or not, maybe so did Dixon (Isaiah Epps in the final seconds against DePaul?).
In this year of a soft bubble, it wouldn't have taken a lot to get Pitt into the NCAA Tournament for the 11th consecutive year. But the Panthers never made a late rally to win a game all year, going 0-12 when trailing at the half and 0-16 when trailing with 5:00 left.
The last time Pitt played in the NIT, assistant coach Brandin Knight was a sophomore point guard. The Panthers made a surprising run to their first-ever Big East finals and then got invited to the NIT, where they beat St. Bonaventure and lost to Mississippi State. The next season Pitt started its NCAA Tournament streak.
Knight said the extra practices and postseason experience in the NIT weren't as important as what happened during the four-game run at Madison Square Garden.
"We kind of figured out how to win," he said. "It wasn't like we played great in the NIT. I think we just figured out how to win when we came to New York that weekend."
This season, Pitt, for all of its hurdles and obstacles, has never figured out how to win.