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For Pitt, national ranking matters

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002

College basketball rankings are temporary, often illogical, and arguably irrelevant.

After all, this is the sport that invites 65 teams to a postseason knockout session to determine a national champion. Not in the Top 25• No problem. Double that number and add 15 to fill the postseason field. Theoretically, any of the 65 could win the national title.

Not so in college football, where rankings are factors in the Bowl Championship Series ratings that decide the elite two that will play for the national championship trophy, and which also-ran teams that will get consolation prizes in the form of multi-million dollar bowl bids. There the rankings mean everything.

But back to the basketball rankings. This week's AP poll has Pitt in the 11th slot, the highest ranking in that poll for the school since January 1991. The coaches' poll this week considers Pitt the No. 10 team nationally.

This season has produced the first national rankings for Pitt since a brief stay as 20-somethings during December 1998. If the Panthers can maintain this level, it would be their best ranking at a season's end since finishing No. 8 in 1988.

Pitt, which plays host to Rutgers on Thursday, is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament at 22-4. Left to be decided is how high the seed will be and where the Panthers will play.

So, what are we to make of the regular-season rankings• Do they matter• Yes, answers no less an interested observer than Pitt coach Ben Howland.

"It's not going to help you win any games," he said, but, "I think it's significant from the aspect of media attention. People take notice. You are in the rankings, you must be pretty good. That's a nice thing."

It is vital to the image of a program such as Pitt, which is attempting to establish that it intends to be a higher-profile player on the basketball scene. The road back is long for a school that last appeared in the NCAA Tournament following the 1992-93 season.

"To have your score coming across the ticker tape on TV as a top 20 team and have people giving you recognition is nice for our program," Howland said. "As we're trying to build this, it's definitely a positive.

"And we still are in the building stages. We haven't arrived like a Syracuse has. To be good, you want to win every year."

There is a certain historic factor to the rankings. Teams that have been winners in the past tend to be ranked in the preseason polls. They tend to linger longer in the regular-season rankings despite losses.

Syracuse fits that profile. The Panthers had to club the Orangemen twice to move ahead of them in the polls. Now, Syracuse has drifted down into the also-receiving-votes waiting room.

Schools such as Pitt, where successes have been sparse in recent seasons, have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they deserve to be ranked. With schools along the lines of Syracuse, it's a case of proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don't belong.

The difference is significant.

Howland's dream is of the day when Pitt is automatically ranked in preseason polls. Then, Pitt would be on a short list of teams counted on to be good year after year.

That is the reward for achieving the distinction of having a good program rather than just a good team.

Howland is in the program-building stage. The relative youth of his team suggests at least one more good year is likely. Beyond that, it will be a matter of good recruiting, good coaching, and producing consistent results.

The Pitt program has been revived and the rankings flash to the world in general the message that others are aware of Pitt's progress. That makes the rankings significant.

Sam Ross Jr. is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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