Feb 12, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Syracuse Orange guard Tyler Ennis (11) and the Orange bench react after Ennis shoots a three point basket to defeat the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Petersen Events Center. Syracuse won 58-56. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Can Pitt Panthers Recover From Recent Struggles In Time For NCAA March Madness?

Feb 12, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon reacts to an officials call against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. Syracuse won 58-56. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

About one month ago, Jamie Dixon watched his Pitt Panthers fall apart in the final two minutes at then-No. 2 Syracuse.  Three days later, Pitt welcomed a Clemson team, which was 4-2 in the ACC, to the Pete.

The No. 20 Panthers absolutely trounced Clemson, playing angrily like Wichita State and blowing out the Tigers 76-43.

This improved Pitt’s record to 17-2 (5-1 ACC), and everyone was certain that Pitt had responded from a win that they let get away against Syracuse.

Since the blowout on Jan. 21, nothing has come easy for the Panthers.

Pitt escaped Maryland with a 83-79 victory in a game that tightened up late. Two days later, in one of the most anticipated games of the season, No. 18 Pitt welcomed Coach K and No. 17 Duke to the Pete for a Big Monday showdown.

In a highly contested game, Pitt fans experienced a rare sight, as Duke surged from a 50-49 lead to a 64-51 advantage in a span of five minutes. The Blue Devils locked down on senior leader Lamar Patterson, and Pitt forgot how to guard the 3-pointer.

We have seen Pitt’s scoring droughts (i.e. Cincinnati’s 44-43 win over the Panthers), and Pitt could only put up 65 against a Duke team that doesn’t necessarily play great defense.

Jan 27, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers guard James Robinson (front) and Duke Blue Devils forward Jabari Parker (1) fight for a loose ball during the first half at the Petersen Events Center. Duke won 80-65. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Moving on from the 80-65 loss to Duke and taking it as a learning experience, we all thought that Pitt would get back on track with a home game against a stingy Virginia squad.

We were wrong.

Virginia certainly knows how to play defense, and it appeared that Pitt was playing itself at home. What is disheartening is that Pitt usually wins against teams that want to play its own style. This was not the case as Virginia drained a late 3-pointer to knock off Pitt 48-45.

Before Duke and Virginia, Pitt was 192-22 on their home court. Back-to-back home losses are not the norm for a Pitt fan. The last-second loss to Virginia certainly stung, putting Pitt on a two-game losing streak. Virginia was all over Patterson, forcing him to shoot 3 of 14 in the field. The other senior, center Talib Zanna, was 1 of 3 shooting for a total of two points.

When the two seniors are shut down, where is the rest of Pitt’s offense going to come from?

Pitt then traveled to an 11-10 Miami team, which had lost five of its six top players from last year’s tourney team. Patterson carried Pitt on his back, scoring 25 points in a close 59-55 overtime win. I’ll take a win whenever possible, but it certainly was not a pretty, impressive victory.

Related: Pitt falls out of both national polls after winless week

Feeling somewhat better that Pitt had shook off the losing streak and won on the road, I believed that Pitt would dominate a Virginia Tech team that was 1-9 in the ACC.

I was wrong again.

In another “offensive” struggle, Pitt staved off Virginia Tech for a 62-57 double overtime win at home. Patterson was 1 of 9 shooting for five points, and Cameron Wright (18 points) and James Robinson (16 points) bailed Pitt out of this game.

With 36 seconds left in the game and Pitt down by four, Pitt’s Robinson buried a 3-pointer in the corner and was fouled. Robinson converted the free throw, and the game went to overtime at 48-48.

In both overtimes, only ONE field goal was scored (Patterson), and an emotionless Pitt managed to win ugly. Again, I will take an ugly win over any loss, but at times, Pitt seems to be lethargic and show a lack of emotion. I feel like this has happened in recent Big East tourney and NCAA tourney games as well. Dixon can often be seen trying to light a fire upon his team.

Pitt then hosted No. 1 Syracuse in a highly-anticipated rematch, and all of our hearts were broken on a 36-foot desperation heave by Tyler Ennis to give the Orange a 58-56 win. For much of the game, Pitt looked pretty good, played hard with emotion, and really competed against Syracuse. Though, this should come as no surprise since Pitt seems to always play Syracuse well.

However, Pitt’s scoring woes have continued, especially at the end of the game. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim indicated that Pitt had multiple chances to close out his team, but Pitt failed to capitalize down the stretch and appeared to just try to run the clock out.

Aside from the lack of scoring, Pitt has not been able to close out a tight game. In the non-conference, Pitt essentially crushed its opponents, rarely having a close game in the second half.

I attribute this to a “weak” non-conference schedule, which hasn’t prepared Pitt for closing out a hotly-contested game.

Surely, the loss of sophomore guard Durand Johnson, which added scoring off the bench, has hurt Pitt. I anticipated Chris Jones and Josh Newkirk to step up in his absence, but I haven’t seen enough to recover from the injury.

Freshmen Jamel Artis has been a bright spot as of late, especially in the second half of Pitt’s 75-71 loss at North Carolina. It was encouraging to see a Pitt team, down by 12, respond and make it a three-point game with under a minute left.

Pitt was 18-2 after defeating Maryland a month ago. Since then, Pitt is 2-4, with both victories coming in overtime against subpar ACC squads. Pitt currently stands at 20-6 (8-5 ACC), and it seems like an NCAA tournament spot is imminent, barring an epic collapse.

Can Pitt get back to its early-season/early-ACC form? With Pitt’s scoring woes (150th in the NCAA) and teams locking down on Patterson, it certainly looks bleak.

Many Pitt and WVU fans have told me that Pitt will go as far as Patterson takes them. I tend to think that this team will go as far as its secondary scorers take them. Currently, I see Pitt at about an eight or nine seed in the tournament.

For Pitt to make a legit run in the tourney, other players like Robinson, Wright, Artis, and Michael Young need to catch fire.  A combination of double-digit scoring from two of the four mentioned here, as well as a solid game from Patterson or Zanna, should be enough for Pitt to beat anyone.

Hopefully all of the close losses will strengthen the team and Pitt can close out a few upcoming opponents, i.e. Florida State and Notre Dame. Unfortunately, Pitt has missed out on its chances on a signature win and must look forward to the ACC tournament.

Although, with the departures of Steven Adams, Trey Zeigler, J.J. Moore, Dante Taylor, Travon Woodall, John Johnson and Malcolm Gilbert – and with Pitt joining the ACC – did any of us think the Panthers would be 20-6 and 8-5 in conference?

I surely didn’t. It is nice to have high hopes for a program many consider “elite.”

Brett is a Pitt staff writer for City of Champions. Follow him on Twitter.

Tags: Jamie Dixon Lamar Patterson Pitt Basketball Pitt Panthers Basketball

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