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Starkey: Strange feeling without Pitt

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

Scheduled to practice late this afternoon, the Pitt basketball team might be on the court when the NCAA Tournament selection show airs at 6 p.m. Not that anyone would care to watch. Pitt will sit out the Big Dance for the first time since 2001.

"Even if I wasn't at practice, I doubt I'd be watching," assistant coach Brandin Knight said. "I don't have much interest."

Strange day, indeed. It had become tradition to watch the Panthers gather on Selection Sunday and receive their March-ing orders. Just last year, that meant a No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region and a trip to Washington, D.C.

Knight wonders if some have become "spoiled" by Pitt's success. I wonder, too, because all anyone wants to talk about is how the Panthers failed to reach the Final Four during their 10-year tourney run (longest among Big East teams).

I prefer to look at it from a historical perspective.

The Panthers' 15-10 tournament record over the past decade could be construed as disappointing -- in some ways it is -- but it looks downright spectacular compared to their mark from the previous decade.

Unless you consider 0-1 a success.

The decade before that (1982-91), Pitt went 3-6.

The decade before that (1972-81): 3-3

All the many decades before that, combined: 2-5.

True, it used to be much tougher to get in. Some good Pitt teams missed the cut before the field expanded to 64 in 1985. None had the benefit of early-round cupcakes.

But no matter the qualifiers, a straight decade of Pitt in the NCAA Tournament deserves to be celebrated, not denigrated.

At the very least, it deserves another look before the Pitt-less brackets come out later today -- and before the Panthers join the ACC as early as next season.

Highs and lows from a decade of Madness:

• Best individual performance: DeJuan Blair's 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Elite Eight loss to Villanova in 2009. Blair went 9 for 9 from the field and played with blood splattered on his shorts. Classic.

Sam Young's 32 points (23 in the first half), eight rebounds and three blocks two games earlier against Oklahoma State merits honorable mention.

• Worst individual performance: A pouting Donatas Zavackas ripped off his sneakers late in the Sweet 16 loss to Marquette in 2003, prompting Ben Howland to keep him on the bench.

• Best win: Forced to play a 25-win Wisconsin team in Milwaukee -- amid a sea of red-clad Badger fans -- Pitt gutted out a 59-55 victory in '04.

• Worst loss: The only time Pitt went down in the first round was to Pacific, 79-71, in '05. The whole trip was a disaster. It took the Panthers 19 hours to get to Boise. The game started at 12:40 p.m. in front of about 11 people. Pacific scored 45 first-half points.

That is a different category than ...

• Most heartbreaking loss: We'll limit this to two words: Scottie Reynolds. Although his shot in '09 still doesn't qualify as the ...

• Most incredible finish: It's still hard to believe Butler's Shelvin Mack fouled Gilbert Brown at halfcourt with 1.4 seconds left last year. And that was before Nasir Robinson fouled Matt Howard 90 feet from the basket.

• Miracle shot that nearly happened: After Reynolds scored with 0.5 seconds left in Boston, Levance Fields' 75-foot heave appeared to be right on the mark before hitting the top of the backboard.

• Best game that didn't happen: It would have been fascinating to see how an unburdened Panthers team -- finally in the Final Four -- would have fared against North Carolina in '09. I'm guessing if Blair had stayed out of foul trouble, he would have done to Tyler Hansbrough what he later did to him in a pre-draft NBA workout.

• Sweetest win: Pitt bludgeoned Cal, 63-50, in front of a raucous home crowd at Mellon Arena in '02, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974.

• Memorable Pitt shots: Three stand out -- Carl Krauser's fearless drive to snap a late tie at Wisconsin and two 3s by Fields. One was against VCU in overtime in '07, after he missed two free throws late in regulation. The other was against No. 4 seed Xavier two years later, with 50.9 seconds left to put Pitt ahead, 55-54.

• All anti-Pitt team: One could literally stock a full lineup:

Center -- Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant became a (failed) lottery pick when he burned Pitt for 28 points in '06.

Power forward -- Kent State's Antonio Gates, a future NFL great, scored 22 points in '02.

Small forward -- Oklahoma State's Tony Allen had 23 in Sweet 16 win in '04.

Shooting guard -- Marquette's Dwyane Wade looked like Michael Jordan -- or maybe Jordan Crawford -- soaring to 22 points in '03.

Point guard -- Mack scored 30• Yes. Yes he did.

But you know what• Even the bad moments seem good today, with Pitt preparing for a late-afternoon practice and hoping for a call from the NIT.

March won't be the same.

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