Kovacevic: Pitt's soft-to-tough transition fails

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 10:53 p.m.

NEW YORK — Jamie Dixon's taken a ton of heat for Pitt's out-of-conference schedule, one that traditionally comes with a toughness range somewhere between Binghamton and Bethune-Cookman, and it's been richly deserved. With few exceptions, the Panthers' opening dozen games each winter have been dull, have done little to develop talent and, yeah, they've probably played a part in all those early NCAA exits.

So what's a fair way, then, to view these Panthers now at 10-1 after a hide-the-women-and-children 44-43 loss to Cincinnati on Tuesday night?

After they wilted under the hot lights of ESPN and Madison Square Garden.

After shooting 31.4 percent from the field, 2 of 13 from outside the arc and — get this — one field goal of any kind in the final 14:54.

After getting hammered for 16 Cincinnati offensive rebounds.

After Lamar Patterson failed to put down both free-throw attempts to set the stage for Titus Robles' winning putback with 4.2 seconds left.

After a final rush up the floor turned into a comedic folly.

Are the Panthers a top-25 team?

Well, it's silly that they weren't before this. They came in 19th in RPI and, in a more advanced measurement, ninth in ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Besides, undefeated is undefeated.

But beyond this?

No chance.

And more important, it's as hard as ever to envision how Pitt will fare in its inaugural ACC schedule, which opens Jan. 4 at North Carolina State.

Cincinnati, which beat N.C. State in November, provided the toughest test to date. And by toughest I'm referring not only to the Bearcats being 8-2 but also their shared former Big East pedigree. Mick Cronin's trademark lineup pounded the glass, took full advantage of loose officiating and, in the old Pitt mold, held the ball for an eternity before shooting.

The Panthers' response was to collectively fall completely flat, and it was easy to tell Dixon knew it: “We weren't good enough, certainly not on the glass, and that's something we're going to work on. That's really disappointing.”

The players sounded much the same.

Patterson looked despondent in addressing those free throws: “I feel like I lost the game.”

Cam Wright, who ended up tossing up a prayer at the buzzer despite Pitt opening the possession with a healthy 4.2 seconds on the clock: “That wasn't University of Pittsburgh basketball out there. We'll bounce back.”

Maybe they will. Again, it's one game.

Overall, I've liked this group a little more each time out, with the exception of this one. Irrespective of the competition, significant strides have been made by younger guys such as Wright, Durand Johnson and Michael Young. That doesn't get erased by one loss, and Young, in fact, had a decent showing against Cincinnati.

It's a group, as I've written, that has a good chance to get better.

At the same time, at least a couple of alarms can legitimately go off here:

1. Pitt couldn't shoot when faced with a solid defense.

That might not hurt much in Big East brawl-ball like this, but it's a death knell in the ACC.

“I really can't explain it other than to say we needed to rebound better,” Dixon said, on one of many references to Cincinnati's overall 35-27 edge in that category. “I'm disappointed about that.”

This is an old problem, of course, that Pitt can only hope doesn't have a new face. And to put it into full context, Pitt had a nearly farcical 19-1 edge in free-throw points and still lost.

2. The schedule stinks.

There's a chance of not facing a top-25 team until mid-January, which is ridiculous.

You'd better believe the topic came up again, as it'll continue to do for as long as it goes unaddressed. In this context, the question was whether or not Pitt might have been better prepared for Cincinnati with an out-of-conference schedule ranked better than 167th in the country.

Wright was asked and deferred: “Our coaches play who they think we should play, and we don't question our coaches' character.”

Dixon didn't seem to appreciate the one aimed his way: “When you get outrebounded like this, it doesn't matter who we play. We play good people. We just didn't get it done. I don't know how it affected our free-throw shooting. Maybe you've got an answer to that.”

Pitt was 19 of 29 from the line overall but 0 for 4 in the final few ticks when the game tightened.

Maybe that's the answer: Things tend not to get too tight against Cal Poly or Albany.

Oh, wait. They're next.

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