Pitt's NCAA Tournament hopes were dealt a blow Wednesday night when South Florida snapped its four-game winning streak with a 63-51 victory at Tampa Times Forum.
The Panthers are now 15-10 overall, 4-8 in Big East Conference play. They likely have to win five of their final six regular-season games to get on the NCAA selection committee's radar.
Next up for Pitt is a Sunday afternoon contest at Seton Hall, another team fighting to stay in NCAA contention.
Seton Hall is ranked higher in the RPI than Pitt, but the Panthers can redeem themselves by beating the Pirates. If the Panthers had to pick one of the two road games to win, it would be the one against Seton Hall because the Pirates have a much higher RPI than South Florida.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has plenty to correct before his team faces the Pirates. South Florida shot 60.5 percent from the field, held the Panthers to 34 percent shooting and outrebounded them 30-27. The Panthers also had 17 turnovers.
"Give South Florida credit," Dixon said. "I think it was battle of patience, and they clearly won that. They seemed to be the ones that were patient. We just didn't perform offensively or defensively with the patience we needed. It's something we preached. We wanted to do it, and we didn't get it done. We didn't play well from the start. We had our chances but just didn't make shots and really turned the ball over. We didn't execute very well. We're disappointed. We're extremely disappointed because we hadn't been playing like this."
ON THE SPOT: Coach Jamie Dixon has to figure out a way to get his team better on the defensive end before Sunday's game at Seton Hall. South Florida became the latest team to put up big numbers against the Panthers.
The Bulls had their way inside against Dixon's post players, scoring 36 of the team's 63 points in the paint. South Florida only attempted six 3-pointers in the game.
Big East opponents are shooting almost 45 percent against Pitt, a much higher number than in seasons past. Even if the Panthers get back to their efficient offensive ways in the games ahead, they're going to need better defense.
When your point guard comes back from a long injury absence and helps the team put an end to an eight-game losing streak, as Tray Woodall has for Pitt, the natural assumption is that he made the offense jell.
And, indeed, that is true.
But what has been missed as an eight-game losing streak became a four-game winning streak has been the improvement in the defense. And much of that goes to Woodall, too.
The Panthers had averaged 59.8 points a game offensively in their first seven conference games, and that has grown by nearly 17 points a game with Woodall's return. The four opponents shot less than 42 percent, Villanova hitting only 35.9 percent.
"It's hand in hand," Dixon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Our offense has helped our defense. We're making more shots. We're taking care of the ball more. I really thought our offense was the cause for our defensive deficiencies."
Why would such improvement on defense come with an improved performance by the offense?
Woodall explained it this way. Happy players are better defenders.
"The offense is a big part of us getting stops on defense," Woodall said. "Everybody is happy on the offensive end. They're not hanging their heads, not moping around. Everyone is hitting shots. Everyone is having fun.
"If you're having fun, you want to go out there and get stops. That's the fun part of basketball. Once you get a couple of baskets, you want to get some stops to get some more baskets."
The result is that the Panthers are playing as they were expected to and have put themselves in position to earn an NCAA bid if they can win out and have a strong performance in the Big East tournament.
--Jamie Dixon coached his 300th game at Pitt, against Villanova. He is 231-69, which is a .770 percentage. At the Petersen Events Center, he is an incredible 143-17 (.894).
--Why was PG Tray Woodall's return so important? Pitt was ranked 13th in turnover margin in the Big East through Feb. 5.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- The number of consecutive home games Pitt had won over Villanova after prevailing on Feb. 5.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're a bunch of fighters on this team, a bunch of winners, at that. We all come from winning programs. That's why Coach Dixon recruited us. We're not used to losing and we don't like it. We're always going to keep fighting." -- PG Tray Woodall, quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Pitt winning four in a row after an eight-game losing streak in his absence.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--at Seton Hall, Feb. 12
KEY MATCHUPS: Seton Hall got off to a fast start but has fallen on really hard times, losing its last five games. Points have been difficult to come by recently -- 49, 51 and 59 in the last three games through Feb. 5. Herb Pope remains a force inside, averaging 16.1 points a game and 10.2 rebounds. Pitt has gone in the opposite direction, winning four straight as PG Tray Woodall has the offense firing.
FUTURES MARKET: Pitt has learned where it will land in the ACC when it finally makes the move there, perhaps as early as next year. The Panthers will play Maryland twice a year and be their scheduling partner. Other partners will be Boston College and Syracuse, Clemson and Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State, Florida State and Miami and Virginia and Virginia Tech.
--Senior G Ashton Gibbs was held to a season-low four points in Wednesday's loss at South Florida. He was 2-for-9 from the field, and he missed his only attempt from 3-point range. He also had five turnovers. It was his lowest point total since January 2010, when Notre Dame held him to four points.
--Junior G Tray Woodall, who was selected Big East player of the week for his stellar 24- and 29-point performances against West Virginia and Villanova, was held to 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting in the loss at South Florida. Woodall, who is the team's top 3-point shooter, was 1-for-6 from behind the arc.