Pitt finished off Villanova yesterday 60-50 on what was a sweet Senior Day for the Panthers.
The win clinched the Big East Regular Season Championship for Pitt and the #1 seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament. It’s widely believed that the Panthers will also be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the brackets are announced a week from today.
The Panther body of work – I italicise the phrase because it always makes me laugh to think it’s used to describe the accomplishments of sweaty 18-22 year-old ballers and not sweaty 18-22 year-old supermodels — is exquisite.
A 27-4 overall record with the one out of conference loss coming to Tennessee, a team as talented and mercurial as their head coach Bruce Pearl.
15-3 in the Big East with the 3 losses coming on a buzzer-beater on the road (St. John’s), an overtime thriller on the road (Louisville), and a Ben Hansbrough-led five-point loss to the second best regular season team in the league (Notre Dame).
The Panthers were expected to win the deepest conference in the country — a conference some experts incorrectly thought was down heading into the season — and they did. They were ranked in the top-five nationally in every preseason poll and finished the regular season there.
Basketball is still a game that, more often than not, rewards groups that work together. Groups that help each other. Groups that sacrifice the me for the we. Groups that get in the weight room and actually pound plates of metal and steel for hours at a time. And finally, the game tends to reward Groups that consist of really good basketball players.
And that’s where a lot of folks got it twisted with this exact same group of players just fifteen months ago.
Brad Wanamaker was the kid that would never live up to the greatness that the Pitt coach kept insisting was inside of him.
Gary McGhee was the center that would never contribute anything besides picking up his five fouls and grabbing the occasional defensive rebound in his area.
Gilbert Brown would never live up to his talent level.
Nasir Robinson would never be capable, at 6’5″, of contributing offensively at the 4 position.
Ashton Gibbs would never be anything more than a spot-up shooter.
Travon Woodall would never be a quality Big East point guard.
Dante Taylor was being questioned because he was producing numbers right in the middle of all the McDonald’s All Americans from his class, while Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna were both being put in the “Pitt can’t recruit talented players” bin already.
And hilariously it continues, even on the morning after Pitt won its third outright Big East title.
I uttered a befuddled “what?” 20 minutes ago when my business partner let me know in a text that Brad Wanamaker was voted 2nd team All Big East by the coaches. It took me back to a discussion I’ve had with Brandin Knight more than once about Pitt’s philosophy in recruiting the types of players they do.
They recruit kids that come from winning programs. Kids that they think will get along with the players they already have. Kids with chips on their shoulders (somebody re-size Wanamaker’s shoulder because the Big East coaches just threw another boulder up there). Knights main point was that the staff, led by Jamie Dixon, recruits kids that they think will contribute to an elite Big East program, not kids that writers or scouts or even Ronald McDonald thinks will.
Gary McGhee is a load in the post defensively and a load on the offensive glass. His 3 offensive rebounds (10 total), especially his putback over two guys while in the air in the second half, were huge.
Gilbert Brown hit a three to give him 1,000 points for his career. He defended like he usually does with his length and strength, set good screens and hit all four of his freebies.
Brad Wanamaker went 0-5 from the field but delivered 6 extra large assists in a game that was slowed to a crawl because Jay Wright knew that was ‘Nova’s only chance. He also hit 3-4 free throws and grabbed 5 rebounds while playing with foul trouble.
Nas Robinson shot 4-6 from the field and finished with 9 points.
Gibbs made big shot after big shot, finishing with 18 points and 0 turnovers.
Woodall hit 5-6 free throws, dished out 3 assists and hit a huge runner off the glass late when the game was still in doubt.
Taylor finished with 4 points and 5 rebounds (4 offensive) in 15 minutes on a still sore knee.
Patterson hit all four of his free throws.
In other words a total Group effort and smiles all around afterwards. No down faces over numbers. No worries about touches. Just pure joy over a task accomplished together.
I asked assistant Pat Skerry to describe this team after working with them all year. Skerry is a first-year assistant, new to the program so I thought his would be a fresh take: “Cohesive and selfless group,” said Skerry. “They’re driven daily and understand winning.”
In other words….Champions.