It doesn't matter that Pittsburgh is No. 5 in the KenPom ratings or that its efficiency stats suggest it's one of the nation's best teams.
Until the Panthers start beating the best teams on their schedule, they won't be perceived as elite.
Three times this season, Pittsburgh has faced a top 50 RPI opponent and each time the Panthers have fallen short. Duke was the latest to topple Pittsburgh, routing the Panthers 80-65 on Monday night at the Petersen Events Center behind 21 points from freshman forward Jabari Parker and 20 from reserve guard Andre Dawkins.
Thanks to tissue-soft non-conference schedule and losses to Cincinnati, Syracuse and Duke, Pittsburgh will enter February without a meaningful win. Though the 18th-ranked Panthers are 18-3 overall and 6-2 in the ACC, the best wins they've notched so far this season are probably a sweep of Maryland and a neutral-court shellacking of Stanford.
If Pittsburgh's loss raised questions about the validity of its gaudy record, Duke's victory suggests the Blue Devils (17-4, 6-2) are finally emerging as the title contender they were expected to be back in November. Not only has Duke reeled off five straight victories since a 1-2 start to ACC play, the Blue Devils could also move within a game of first place in the league with a road upset of undefeated Syracuse on Saturday night.
There are several things Duke did well against Pittsburgh that suggest the Blue Devils should not be counted out Saturday in the Carrier Dome.
Against a Pittsburgh team known for its physicality, toughness and rebounding, Duke won the battle inside, outscoring the Panthers 28-16 in the paint and parlaying 11 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points. It was a performance reminiscent of what the Blue Devils did in a rout of Florida State on Saturday when they pummeled the Seminoles on the offensive glass despite a size disadvantage.
Duke's recent improvement on defense also continued against the Panthers as the Blue Devils held Pittsburgh without a point for four minutes during a 12-0 second-half spurt that broke open a close game.
With Rodney Hood hounding Lamar Patterson, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson defending the paint and Rasheed Sulaimon adding another perimeter defender to the mix, Duke held a typically efficient Pittsburgh team to 41.2 percent shooting. Patterson sank only 4 of his 14 shots and forward Talib Zannah hit just 2 of 7, though he got to the foul line 10 times and finished with a double-double.
Much of Duke's offense came from Parker and Dawkins. Parker delivered a flawless first half and finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Dawkins was huge in the second half, hitting six 3-pointers and scoring eight points during Duke's decisive 12-0 run.
As it walked off the court in defeat Monday night, Pittsburgh had to know it was running out of chances to validate its impressive efficiency stats.
One opportunity comes Saturday at home against surging Virginia. Another comes 10 days later at home against Syracuse. Matchups with North Carolina and Florida State also offer opportunities later in February.
At some point, Pittsburgh has to start winning some of those games. Otherwise the Panthers' NCAA tournament seeding will suffer as much as their perception.