|For a change, Pitt streaking at the right time|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 18 March 2008 23:35|
Year after year, the Panthers - despite averaging 27 victories since the 2001-02 season - repeatedly peaked in February rather than March.
Even while reaching the Big East championship game seven times in this century, Pitt never seemed to be playing at its best when the NCAA tournament arrived.
With four wins in four days in the Big East tournament, all while playing with poise and confidence they've often lacked at this stage of the season, the Panthers are talking like a team that's convinced it can make a run at the first Final Four appearance in school history.
The Panthers (26-9) left Tuesday for their NCAA South regional game against Oral Roberts on Thursday, beginning what they hope is the first of three successive weekend trips out West.
``I think we've got a team that's built for this tournament,'' guard Keith Benjamin said Tuesday. ``There's no jitters or anything like that. Nobody's scared and nobody cares who we play. Everybody wants to play the best teams in the country.'``'
If they beat Oral Roberts and either Michigan State or Temple in Denver, the Panthers would travel to Houston next week for the South regional. The weekend after that is the Final Four in San Antonio.
To win a regional for the first time - none of their past six NCAA qualifiers advanced past the round of 16 - the Panthers may have to do exactly what Benjamin said: beat some of the country's best teams.
The South regional looks to be the strongest, with six of the 16 teams finishing in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll: No. 2 Memphis, No. 7 Texas, No. 10 Stanford, No. 17 Pitt, No. 18 Michigan State and No. 25 Marquette.
If the Panthers defeat Oral Roberts, they conceivably could face a ranked team in every remaining game in the tournament, beginning Saturday with the Spartans.
Then, should they win that game, the Panthers could face two Top 10 teams in Houston, with Memphis and former Pitt assistant John Calipari looming as their potential opponent in the regional semifinal and either Texas or Stanford after that.
Beating No. 13 Louisville, No. 25 Marquette and No. 8 Georgetown in as many days in New York last week may have given the Panthers the confidence to pull it off.
Pitt has won five in a row and seven of eight and is 18-5 with point guard Levance Fields in the lineup. Of those five defeats, one came in the Dec. 29 game at Dayton in which he broke a foot and three others came immediately after he returned seven weeks later.
``I think we performed as well as anybody during championship week,'' Fields said. ``We've just got to continue that.''
Field agrees the last two Pitt teams may have peaked early, but that this team appears to be playing its best exactly when it wanted to be.
``It's definitely a good feeling, going in the way we are,'' Fields said.
Last year, Pitt (29-8) lost at home to Louisville late in the season before being beaten twice by Georgetown in barely two weeks' time, including a 65-42 loss in the Big East final.
Two years ago, the Panthers (25-8) lost four of eight going into the tournament and didn't make it to the round of 16, losing to Bradley 72-66 in the second round. In 2005, the Panthers (20-9) lost five of their final seven. In 2003-04, they went 31-5 and won the Big East regular season title, yet three of their five defeats occurred after Feb. 28.
``I think we have everything it takes to make a deep run,'' Fields said.