Midway through his two-month absence due to a groin strain and abdominal tear, Pittsburgh guard Tray Woodall admits the frustration of not being able to play became too much for him to bear.
Woodall's teammates had just dropped a home game to little-known Wagner the previous week, so he pleaded with the coaching staff to let him play in the Panthers' Big East opener on Dec. 27 at Notre Dame. Only after the game started did Woodall realize he'd returned way too soon.
"That was my frustration that caused me to come back when I definitely shouldn't have," Woodall said. "There were moves that I normally make and I couldn't. And then defensively, I was hurting my team. And if I'm hurting my team defensively, I'm nowhere near ready."
Three weeks and five more Pittsburgh losses went by before Woodall's injuries healed enough for him to make a Jan. 21 return, but his presence has been the catalyst for the Panthers' sudden resurgence. He has averaged 18.5 points and 6.75 assists in his past four games, leading the Panthers to four straight wins and restoring hope they can reach the NCAA tournament despite an 0-7 start in Big East play.
At 15-9 overall but just 4-7 in the Big East entering Wednesday night's road game at South Florida, Pittsburgh needs to win five of its final seven games just to finish with a .500 league record. It might require more than that for other Big East teams to land an NCAA bid, but historical precedent suggests the Panthers could receive the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee since seven of their losses came with Woodall sidelined or hobbled.
"We all have faith," Woodall said. "Nobody here had a losing mentality. We all just wanted to fight back. Even when we were on that losing streak, we all kept saying to each other, 'We've got to make the tournament.'" We're just fighting to get back to that spot."
When Woodall suffered his injury in the closing minutes of Pittsburgh's Nov. 30 win over Duquesne, he immediately knew it was serious. The Brooklyn native had played through nagging injuries before throughout his career, but this was searing pain more severe than any he'd experienced previously.
"When it happened, I knew right away it was a big problem because I wasn't able to walk," Woodall said. "I'm definitely not a soft guy. I'm not going to sit there and cry, but I knew right away it was something serious because I'd never felt any pain like that before in my life."
The area where Woodall has helped Pittsburgh most since his return is on offense because his playmaking ability via dribble penetration has taken pressure off leading scorer Ashton Gibbs.
During Pittsburgh's eight-game losing streak, Gibbs shot 15 of 55 from the field in part because he had to take responsibility for creating off the dribble. Woodall has taken over those duties since his return and enabled Gibbs to go back to being more of a spot-up shooter, contributing to Gibbs' 23 of 45 shooting the past four games.
"Everybody has gone back to their comfortable positions, doing what they normally did, what they're comfortable doing and what they prepared for all offseason," Woodall said. "Guys who aren't used to creating don't have to do it as much and guys who finish plays finish plays."
The ability of Woodall to help stop dribble penetration has also bolstered Pittsburgh's struggling defense, but this is still hardly a vintage Jamie Dixon team in that regard. The departure of shot-blocking center Gary McGhee, athletic wing Gilbert Brown and harassing lead guard Brad Wanamaker have left a defensive void the current Panthers have yet to fill, especially after Khem Birch's transfer left the Panthers with no shot blocker.
Nonetheless, an NCAA tournament berth is an increasingly realistic possibility, especially since the schedule sets up well for Pittsburgh if it can defeat South Florida tonight. The Panthers then get struggling Seton Hall on the road before home games against rival West Virginia and South Florida a second time.
Whatever happens, Woodall is happy he was able to return in time to still make an impact this season.
"Being hurt was one of the worst experiences I've had in in my life," Woodall said. "I was hurt and I couldn't be out there with my team and I know my team needed me out there with them. We worked so hard in practice together and played so much over the offseason to get to this point and be the team we needed to be, but I wasn't able to be there for those guys and it crushed me. But I'm here now and that's why I'm trying to leave everything on the floor because I know in one instant this dream could be over."