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MILWAUKEE - Pitt lost their fifth consecutive game to open Big East play on Saturday, falling to Marquette 62-57 and finding themselves as the only winless team in the league.
At this point, moral victories are meaningless for the Panthers. They need real, honest-to-god wins to start piling up if they don't want to go down as the biggest disappointment of the 2011-2012 college basketball season. We know this. They know this. And Syracuse, who hosts the Panthers Monday night, knows this.
"They played well," Orange head coach Jim Boeheim said after watching Pitt's loss on Saturday. "They had a real good chance to win. They are a good team. I don't care what their record is. They've got a good team. They will come in here Monday night, and they will play well. I know that."
And he's right.
Pitt looked like a different team on Saturday. After rolling over and playing dead in a 23 point home loss to Rutgers on Wednesday, Pitt came to fight against Marquette. They jumped out to a 13-4 lead, they battled on the glass and they got a career-high 29 points out of Ashton Gibbs. The Panthers may be on the wrong end of a six game losing streak, but this is still a team with a winning mentality and culture. Putting up a good fight on the road isn't enough; they expect to win those games.
"The losses are more than we've ever had," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. "Our kids are very disappointed because they played hard. They played well. They just didn't play well enough to win."
Pitt may not want to hear about moral victories, but I absolutely took something out of their performance: this team isn't ready to quit on their season. Gibbs and Nasir Robinson aren't ready to call it a career. The Panthers are going to be a tough out the rest of the way, at least as long as they still have a chance to take part in the postseason.
The problem is that the Panthers are flawed right now, and those flaws are neither a secret nor permanent. In fact, I can tell you how Pitt can turn their season back around, and I only need two words to do it: Tray Woodall.
Its that simple.
Look, Pitt has never been a great defensive basketball team under Dixon. They've been good -- really good at times -- but not elite. That fact has been magnified this season, but its not like the Panthers have been getting blown out. Four of their seven losses are by five points are less. The loss to Rutgers was the result of a horrendous shooting night and a game that the Panthers quit on. Pitt's defense has been good enough to give them a chance to win.
"We're not used to this," Dixon said. "We lost to some good teams, but we've had chances to win."
Turnovers are what cost Pitt the game against Marquette. There's no way around it. They turned the ball over 17 times in the game. Robinson had seven of them. Without Woodall in the lineup, Robinson has been forced to try and become more of a primary playmaker and that's simply not what he does best. He's a great role player and a terrific complimentary option. He's not a go-to guy.
Lamar Patterson was an even bigger scapegoat. He had four turnovers on the game, but all four of them came in a six possession span in the middle of the second half. Marquette threw on a press and Patterson lost the ability to throw the ball to his teammates. It only took two minutes for the Golden Eagles to turn a 41-36 deficit into a 49-41 lead.
Would that have happened if Woodall had the ball in his hands in Pitt's press break?
"Turnovers have been a problem," Dixon said. "We've tried to get better at it. Those really cost us."
The problem with that line of thinking?
Its like saying if I looked like Leonardo di Caprio I would be able to dump Giselle for Blake Lively.
Pitt doesn't have Woodall. They don't know when they are going to be getting him back, and while he sits on the bench in street clothes, the Panthers are going to have to do something to try and figure out a way to get their season turned around.
"We definitely miss him, but playing without him, we could definitely win some games without him," Gibbs said. "He definitely helps us on the court, but he's not there. We can win some games without him. Isaiah [Epps is] doing a great job, he showed that today. I think we found our lineup, now its just about doing little things to win games, and that is not turning the ball over and rebounding."
Against Syracuse, Pitt is going to miss Woodall's playmaking. To compensate, they are going to need both Robinson and Patterson to play much better than they did against Marquette. You beat the Syracuse zone by getting the ball to a playmaker at the high post, either via the pass or the dribble. Without Woodall, that playmaker becomes Robinson or Patterson. They are both capable of finding open teammates, and they are going to have to if the Panthers want to beat that Syracuse zone.
"Its definitely a possibility of beating them, we were right here with Marquette, who is one of the best teams in the league," Gibbs said. "But we can't turn the ball over."
The bottom line is this: even with Woodall in the lineup, Pitt is not as good as their preseason rankings. But without Woodall, they are not as bad as they have been the past month. The Panthers are going to turn this thing around and start winning some basketball games.
But that only happens if they spend the rest of the season playing with the effort they did against Marquette, not Rutgers.
"I liked how we played," Dixon said. "We did some really good things. I'm proud of how hard we played but we didn't get it done."