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March 23, 2007
(AP) - Reflecting on his team's 29-win season, its latest NCAA tournament appearance and another Big East tournament championship game, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon experienced tunnel vision.
There was so much of the season to like, but Dixon could focus only on the finish. The same, familiar finish.
No matter what Pitt achieves - a No. 2 national ranking early this season, and a sixth consecutive NCAA appearance - there always seems to be a feeling of underachievement when the Panthers' season ends. This season was no different.
For the fourth time in six years, Pitt couldn't advance from the NCAA round of 16 to the final eight - the ever-elusive goal the Panthers keep missing.
Only a handful of NCAA teams can match Pitt's success since 2001 under coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, yet no season has felt satisfying when it ended.
"It feels like a loss, and a bad one, a disappointing end-of-year loss," Dixon said after a 64-55 defeat Thursday to Howland-coached UCLA in the West Regional. "I'm trying to remember the 29 wins. I only seem to be remembering this loss."
There was one change - this time, the Panthers weren't upset in the NCAA tournament. Unlike 2002 (Kent State), 2003 (Marquette) or 2006 (Bradley), Pitt was supposed to lose this game, despite being third-seeded in the West. The only dramatic element was Pitt losing to its former coach, and Dixon losing to his best friend.
The higher seeding that led to the Pitt-UCLA game was partly the result of the Panthers upgrading their schedule to play early season games against teams such as Oklahoma State and Wisconsin. Dixon and athletic director Jeff Long felt the Panthers' seeding was too low in prior tournaments, and they improved the schedule in response.
But despite being the preseason favorite in the Big East, having the preseason player of the year in 7-foot center Aaron Gray and being No. 1 in the RPI strength-of-schedule comparisons, Pitt's Big East season wasn't totally satisfying, either.
The Panthers led the race nearly all season, only to lose the title to Georgetown when they dropped late-season games to Marquette (twice), Louisville and the Hoyas. And Georgetown followed that up by beating Pitt 65-42 in the Big East tournament championship game.
"We never showed up," Levance Fields said.
One problem was that, unlike the previous Dixon- or Howland-coached Pitt teams (except for the 20-9 team of 2005), this team played better at the start of the season than at the end.
Gray, in the best shape of his career, was a dominant player for half a season but never seemed the same after injuring an ankle against Washington on Feb. 17. He was a non-factor at times in the Big East tournament and managed only 10 shots against UCLA, finishing with 10 points.
"It was a good time for me but, right now, I feel real sad," Gray said.
During a season in which so much was expected, Gray's statistics were worse than those of his junior year. His 13.9 scoring average was the same, but he averaged one fewer rebound per game (9.5).
Pitt's other big inside player, the 6-10 Levon Kendall, experienced an even greater falloff - his scoring average dropped from 7.0 to 5.4, and he went scoreless against UCLA.
No one else in the lineup was consistent. Mike Cook (10.5) was the only other player to average in double figures. Fields, the replacement at point guard for three-year starter Carl Krauser, was an erratic shooter (41 percent). Sam Young, the 6-6 sophomore who came on strong as a freshman, began the season out of position at small forward and never settled in despite having several big games.
The UCLA loss summed up the season perfectly. Pitt may have never played a game in which it missed so many shots from 3 feet or closer. So close, yet so far away again.
"I thought it was a great year but, at the same time, I still think about the missed opportunities," Fields said. "The end of the regular season and not getting the job done, the Big East championship and not coming to play and the missed opportunity (against UCLA). It was a great year, but I think everybody agreed it could have been better."