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The jury is still out on how good Pittsburgh is

February 28, 2014 Columns No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – As crunch time is upon us, one of many questions out there is what to make of Pittsburgh. The Panthers are clearly a good team, though certainly beatable, but just how good they are is up for debate. As they entered a season-ending stretch that sees them playing three of four on the road with a three-game losing streak, winning on Wednesday night at Boston College would seem a good way to move forward. They did it with a 66-59 win, but it’s also one that leaves the jury out on how good the Panthers are.

At the same time, the opportunity to change that is there.

Beating Boston College doesn’t move the needle. As the Panthers aren’t really a bubble team, beating them also doesn’t necessarily constitute avoiding a bad loss. The three-game losing streak, on the other hand, is something to nip in the bud, especially at the start of a stretch with three of four on the road, and they did that.

Pittsburgh also won despite injuries hampering them. Head coach Jamie Dixon said they didn’t have a live practice on Tuesday because he had several players banged up and didn’t want to risk losing another player. Chris Jones couldn’t lift one arm, Talib Zanna was limping, and Mike Young was wearing a back brace. The latter two start for the Panthers.

“I made that decision, which I don’t think I’ve ever done and I hope I never have to do again,” said Dixon of not practicing.

The Panthers’ profile includes some good wins. They won the Progressive Legends Classic with wins over improving Texas Tech and Stanford. They beat Penn State, and in ACC play have knocked off Maryland twice and Clemson. But in that list, there is only one team that may be in the NCAA Tournament, which is Stanford, and the Cardinal are not a lock to make it (and they lost at Arizona State on Wednesday night in a so-so showing.)

Pittsburgh will also have to wait until the ACC Tournament to get another chance for a win over a sure NCAA Tournament team. Their final three games are at Notre Dame, home against NC State and at Clemson. None are NCAA Tournament locks and only Clemson has much of a shot, and Littlejohn Coliseum is not an easy place to play.

There is something to be said for winning the games you’re “supposed to” win. Pittsburgh has done that. They don’t have a bad loss on the resume, with the worst one being to a Florida State team that is on the bubble. But they haven’t broken through against teams sure to be in the tournament, like Syracuse (lost twice), Virginia, Duke and North Carolina.

What this adds up to is that the Panthers are good, but just how good they are is an open question. Watch them and you get an idea, as they have talent. They have solid seniors in Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, as well as improving junior Cameron Wright and one of the most underrated point guards in sophomore James Robinson. Durand Johnson, out for the season with a right knee injury, is also pretty good. Look at their results and you get a mixed impression given who they have defeated and who they have lost to. How good they are should be clearer in a couple of weeks, and that means there is opportunity there for them.

“We haven’t played as good, there’s no question,” said Dixon. “There’s obvious reasons why, but as I told our guys, why can’t it be now?”

Now would be a good time for that, as would the ACC Tournament in two weeks. The Panthers can only play the games on their schedule, and that contains no sure NCAA Tournament teams until possibly the conference tournament. All they can do is win and get better along the way. If they do more of that, the debate on how good they really are may come to an end just in time.

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