When the NCAA selection committee announced the men's basketball brackets, I promised myself that I would not be upset should Pitt meet and lose to UCLA in the Sweet 16. (By contrast, I could not even bring myself to conceive of Pitt losing to the whitest, most annoying team on earth in the second round ... so I believe I speak for all of Pittsburgh when I thank Virginia Commonwealth University for sparing us that fate.)
There is no shame in being one of the last 16 teams standing, or in losing to UCLA on what amounted to its home court. UCLA was ranked No. 1 in the polls early in the season, and it remained a top-10 staple throughout. The Bruins have an awe-inspiring basketball tradition. And as much as I like and respect Jamie Dixon, part of me misses Ben Howland's red-faced scowl prowling the Panthers' sidelines. He's a fantastic coach, and I half-heartedly root for him, even now.
A loss to the Bruins would be no big deal, I reasoned. So why couldn't I scrub the taste of bitterness and disappointment from my mouth following Pitt's Sweet 16 loss?
Anyone who watched Pitt both versus Georgetown in the Big East Tournament and versus UCLA in the NCAA tournament had to come away with the same thoughts: In both games, the Panthers were rattled, tight and out of sorts. Their outside shooting was what it has been all year: too inconsistent to be effective. Mercifully, the team-wide aversion to free throws is at least matched by the competition's, as charity shooting has reached an all-time nadir in the college ranks.
Most disturbing of all is that the Panthers managed to score negative-four points in the paint. (Precise calculations may vary.) And that dismal performance was thanks largely to Pitt center Aaron Gray.
Gray seems to be a nice young man. According to everybody near the team, nobody works harder in practice, and he was named to the Big East Academic All Star Team. That's quite an accomplishment in an age when everybody decries the lack of studiousness among student-athletes. But -- how can I put this delicately? -- in the two biggest games of Pitt's season, Gray moved like a manatee in the paint. He seemed incapable of a layup or a put-back. What's the point of having a lumbering 7-foot-tall center if he can't jam over the likes of Ali G?
When Gray missed his first bunny, coach Dixon must have known his team's chances, too, suggested a manatee: slow, harmless and endangered.
Every time the Panthers transitioned to the offensive end, it looked like they flipped the tenacity switch off around mid-court. For much of the game, they played familiar Panther D: effective, determined and annoying to UCLA's shooters. But on the offensive end, Pitt's players simply failed to go strong to the basket.
Of course, if we're being even-handed (though why start now?), the Panthers' offensive woes were due in large part to the Bruins' play. UCLA's defense is intimidating. I was afraid of those guys just watching them on TV. They scared the Panthers too, evidently ... and then did the same thing to No. 1-seed Kansas two nights later.
But the loss to UCLA felt much worse than the pounding Pitt took from Georgetown, because the UCLA game was there for the taking. What the Panthers displayed was the lack of a killer instinct. Only the really great teams have it -- the ability to recognize when an opponent is down, and the resourcefulness to ratchet up their play accordingly.
I have long maintained that, year in and year out, what Dixon does at Pitt is nothing short of remarkable. He gets the best from his players without having go-to guys on his squad. He gets players to commit to the team concept. In a sport that often puts a premium on offensive showboating, it is rewarding to watch a team win on defense and discipline, as Dixon's teams so often do.
But the team on display against UCLA didn't belie merely a lack of shooting talent -- it revealed a lack of determination. In a battle of two teams very evenly matched, the Bruins played like they wanted it more, even if just by a little bit.