PITTSBURGH – The NCAA tournament held opening weekend games at Consol Energy Center last spring, a few hundred feet from Tray Woodall’s front door. The Pittsburgh guard, however, wanted none of it.
“We weren’t in the tournament so I didn’t go over there,” Woodall said. “I was frustrated.”
A year later, Woodall and the Panthers are back in the middle of the madness.
Following a lost season in which Pitt missed the tournament for the first time in over a decade, the eighth-seeded Panthers (24-8) will play ninth-seeded Wichita State (26-8) in the second round of the West Region in Salt Lake City Thursday.
While senior center Dante Taylor admitted he was a little surprised to see a team that went 12-6 in the Big East drop all the way to an eighth seed, it certainly beats the alternative of not being in the tournament at all.
“I definitely think it’s something we’re going to use to our advantage,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. Yeah we usually are higher but we’ve got to prove to people we deserve to be higher.”
Pitt hasn’t been seeded so low in the NCAA since being a ninth-seed in 2005, when the Panthers were knocked off by Pacific in the opening round. Woodall cautioned Pitt could make another early exit if it takes the Shockers lightly.
“We said while we were watching the (selection) show, we basically could be playing Gonzaga but if we do that we’re overlooking” Wichita, Woodall said. “We want to win. Me and Dante want to go out on top. We want to make a big run.”
It’s something the Panthers failed to do in their final go-round at the Big East tournament last week. Pitt qualified as the fourth seed and earned a double-bye but never really got going in a 62-59 loss to Syracuse.
The Panthers shot just 37 percent from the floor and never led over the final 28 minutes. Taylor earned five stitches over his right eye while battling for a rebound and has missed two straight practices and his vision out of the eye remains blurry. He didn’t practice Sunday but insisted “I’ll be good” by Thursday.
Pitt will certainly need him against the Shockers, who average a robust 38.4 rebounds per game and will hardly be intimidated against a team that has looked vulnerable at times. The Panthers went just 5-7 against teams that made the NCAA field and have five players making their NCAA tournament debuts, including starting point guard James Robinson and center Steven Adams.
The 7-foot Adams, a New Zealand native, is still trying to get a handle on the NCAAs. It was never a priority while growing up half a world away.
“It never interested me at all,” Adams said with a laugh.
Things have changed in the last few weeks. He called the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament an eye opener and believes he’s better prepared to handle the pressure that comes this time of year.
“I’ve been progressing,” he said. “I’ve been quite happy about it as I’ve been gaining a bit more confidence here or there.”
Even if the bank of TVs turned to the selection show and the murmur that went up when Pitt’s name finally popped up caught him by surprise. Adams has no real sense of what the seeding means. He just knows one loss and the season is over.
“I don’t really care who we play, just so long as we win,” Adams said.
It’s an ethos preached by coach Jamie Dixon. While he anticipated a team that finished fourth in the Big East getting a friendlier seed, he pointed out “nobody except the ones are probably happy with their seeds.”
Besides, for once Pitt enters the tournament under the radar. For a program still searching for its first Final Four appearance in the modern era, that’s not a bad thing. The Panthers were a No. 1 seed two years ago only to fall victim to eighth-seeded Butler in the second round.
How fitting if they could earn a chance to turn the tables provided they can beat Wichita State first. Pitt dominated the last meeting between the two schools in 2009, rolling to a 68-55 victory behind 19 points from Woodall.
It seems like a long time ago, but for veterans Woodall and Taylor the mission remains the same.
“We’ve just got to go in and handle business,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to get the W.”