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I can't imagine how the Pitt Panthers players must feel in the wake of the Instant Classic that was their gut-wrenching, last-second, two-point loss against Villanova in the Elite Eight, but somehow I have a feeling that even the dramatic photo above does their collective mood no justice. It was devastating, crushing, heartbreaking, and any other appropriate adjective you could think of. And that was just the fan's perspective.

To watch the Pitt basketball program grow and mature over the last decade has been highly enjoyable. For Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon to build a highly-respected basketball institution (the right way, I might add) year-in and year-out has been nothing short of amazing. And as a fan, it's inevitable to become emotionally attached. Through the annual pre-Big East appetizers, the conference schedule, and the end-of-the-regular-season gathering at Madison Square Garden, there's a natural arc of events that you're mentally prepared for. You become accustomed to the Panthers starting, say, 15-0, getting a national ranking, winning a couple big Big East games, and having their way in the conference tournament. But throughout it all, there's been one thing that's given even the most loyal Pitt fan cause for worry: the NCAA tournament, where they rarely seem to peak at the right time of year.

It's only the success that Pitt's enjoyed that's created this monster of increased March expectations. With each year of only advancing so far in the tournament while leaving their fans wanting more, the monkey on their backs grew to a near-unbearable weight. I recently compared it to what Bill Cowher went through with the Steelers and what Peyton Manning experienced with the Colts before finally breaking through. But for the most part, those men would retain the bulk of their team the following season. Manning had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James or Joseph Addai year after year. Cowher knew he would be returning Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, and a great defense for many of his 15 years in charge. But in Pitt's case, the bitter pill to swallow is that Saturday was the last time we'll see this team as we know it.

A friend of mine recently compared the 2008-09 Panthers to the 1992 NLCS-losing Pittsburgh Pirates. With the pending fate of the team, you knew it was championship or bust. The window was only going to be open for so long. In the Pirates' case, the worst-case scenario soon came to pass. Barry Bonds went to San Francisco. Bobby Bonilla bolted to New York. Doug Drabek and Andy Van Slyke soon found themselves in different uniforms. And 17 years later, the organization still hasn't recovered.

With the '08-'09 Pitt Panthers, whose final game was every bit as painful as that of the '92 Pirates, you have a team that's likely going to produce two NBA first-round draft picks in Sam Young and Dejuan Blair. The team's emotional leader, Levance Fields, will also be moving on, as is senior Tyrell Biggs. Is there incoming talent? Sure, and plenty of it. The cupboard is not bare. Freshman-to-be Dante Taylor is rated as a top-10 prospect. Gilbert Brown is like a rising stock. But by no means will it have the same level of expectations as this year's squad.

And that's the toughest part about the brutal defeat the Panthers suffered at the hands of the Wildcats on Saturday night. After years of building to a zenith, Pitt is due for somewhat of a fall. Based on the tournament, the program finished somewhere between the fifth and eighth spot in the country this year. In reality, that's fantastic. And instead of wallowing in our somewhat predictable disappointment, we should appreciate what an accomplishment it was to make it this far. Because few fan bases should appreciate it more than Pitt's.

The structure of the NCAA tournament has gradually pushed the Cinderella stories to the side. With scheduling changes putting the top seeds closer to home, major upsets are few and far between. This year, 14 of the top 16 seeds made it through the first two rounds unscathed. It's become a home of the power players. And Pitt has definitively earned their seat at that table.

As Pitt basketball fans, we've become spoiled by success. We were prepared to turn our noses at any anything less than the Elite Eight this year, saying it would be "unacceptable". But if you think it's easy to win and win and win and win some more, take a look in the direction of Kentucky, where their program has been turned upside-down. Or how about once-proud St. John's, who's become a Big East also-ran? Or maybe DePaul, which went 0-18 in Big East play this year? That was a school that Ray Meyer took to postseason play 21 times.

It's taken a long time to get to my point, but it's simple: don't be upset at Sam Young, Dejuan Blair, Levance Fields, Jamie Dixon, et al., for ruining your bracket or your prospective Championship Party. They wanted it. They gave it their absolute best effort. But in the end, for whatever reason, it just wasn't meant to be. Looking back on the game, people are second-guessing this play or that decision. But you could do that on both sides. I'm sure Jay Wright wishes he didn't call for the home-run pass in the game's closing moments. What happened happened, and as hard as it is, we must eventually move on.

Rather than dwelling on the negative, we should celebrate the accomplishments of the outgoing players, who gave us a lifetime of great memories in one season. What Fields did against Xavier will go down in the annals of memorable moments in Pittsburgh sports history for a long time. And how about Blair flipping over Hasheem Thabeet in front of a national audience? Priceless. This team gave us more great moments than many other Pittsburgh teams have, professional or amateur. And for that, I'm glad I was around for the ride. Because there are worse things in life than watching your favorite basketball team fall in the Elite Eight. As sports fans, that's a different story; but still, our city just celebrated a Super Bowl victory and is in contention for a Stanley Cup. We've got a lot of suitable distractions until the next Pitt basketball season.

I feel for you, Panthers. What you've built is incredible. Your season gets an A+ for effort. And maybe one day, you'll advance even deeper in March. After all these close calls, I can assure you that your fans will appreciate it.

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Jonny Van Mundegaarde said...

Beautifully put, Don. I had the words "No effing way!" typed into my phone's text box, ready to send after the hail mary pass. I hesitated to hit send until Levance sunk his foul shots, and with the score tied up I finally did hit send. And then the Bryce Drew patented play happened. No effing way...

Thanks for giving us a great season of basketball to watch, Pitt.

Wedgebuster said...

great write up. still tough to swallow.

lets go pens.

SantoGold said...

Great effort and great game by Pitt. Great season for that matter. But, have to face facts, that a great opportunity to get to the Final Four was missed.

Getting close may be nice, but in the words of Reese Bobby "If you ain't first, you're last". And thats what the Panthers will have to come to grips with.

HotDog_Zanzabar said...

Even though they are from Philly, I wish Villanova well in the Final 4. That's a tough as nails team that's firing on all cylinders right now. The thing that has me the second most frustrated right now (Jermaine Dixon being the first) was seeing UConn celebrating their Final 4 berth. We whooped em twice and they get to go and we're sitting at home.

Someone Somewhere said...

Eh, Pitt played as well as they could...sure they -could- have hit more free throws, but they were right around their season average. Blair had 20/10, Young had his customary 28/7 (I think) and hit that HUGE 3 to bring the score within one under a minute to play. Levance Fields did what Levance Fields does and stepped up and made 4 huge free throws down the stretch. Villanova just had a chance to make one more play, and they converted. Making 22-23 from the line was an incredible effort and speaks to the level at which they are playing right now. They had to be perfect to beat Pitt, and they were. With so many of Villanova's players in foul trouble, I really liked Pitt's chances in OT, they had absolutely no answer for Blair. It was an incredible game to watch as a basketball fan, and a horrible finish if you are a Pitt fan.

BurressWithButterflywings said...

That was a tough one see over and over and over. Especially thinking about how close Field's 3/4 court prayer came to being possibly one of the most epic shots in NCAA tournament history.

Great season Pitt!

Anonymous said...

What a sad way for it all to come to an end.

1. 'Nova won the game at the free throw line. 22 of 23 is just ridiculous. If they only shoot a surreal 85% from the line, Pitt wins.

2. The Dixon turnover late in the game when Pitt had a four point lead definitely turned the tide. We went from up four to down one in the blink of an eye.

3. Toughest loss to take since the Steelers lost to the Pats in Jan 2005.

Footnote, is often forgotten that Bobby Bo actually left for the Mets following the 1991 season.

Can you tell I'm still pissed about the game?