The lone ray of hope for Pittsburgh during its interminable eight-game losing streak was that the return of injured point guard Tray Woodall might solve some of the problems that had derailed the Panthers.
It's too soon to declare Woodall the savior, however, Pittsburgh's three-game win streak since his return has at least lent credence to that theory.
When Woodall is healthy and plays more than 25 minutes, Pittsburgh is 9-1 with wins over the likes of Georgetown, West Virginia and LaSalle. By contrast, the Panthers are 5-6 with him not on the floor and 0-2 when he played in a limited capacity while still recovering from the abdomen/groin injury that sidelined him for much of December and January.
The area where Woodall helps the most is on offense, where his playmaking ability via dribble penetration takes pressure off leading scorer Ashton Gibbs and creates opportunies for himself and others.
Woodall scored 24 points in Pittsburgh's win at rival West Virginia on Monday night and has averaged 15 points and 7.3 assists in his past three games. Despite still lacking a consistent interior scoring threat, the Panthers averaged a gaudy 1.17 points per possession during that stretch, well above the 0.95 points per possession they averaged during the losing streak.
The ability of Woodall to help stop dribble penetration has also helped bolster Pittsburgh's 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.
Getting back into at-large contention is certainly still a long shot for Pittsburgh because of the hole it dug for itself, but it no longer looks as inconceivable a goal as it did even a week ago.
At 14-9 overall but just 3-7 in Big East play, Pittsburgh would need to finish 6-2 in its last eight regular season games just to reach .500 in conference play. The Panthers do benefit from a favorable schedule that begins with Villanova, South Florida and Seton Hall and includes only one matchup with a ranked opponent, a Feb. 26 road game at Louisville.
The other positive for Pittsburgh is that history suggests the selection committee would take into account Woodall's absence when judging the Panthers' resume. If Pittsburgh can finish strong and even make it onto the bubble, it could have a compelling case come Selection Sunday.
There's no doubt that Pittsburgh is still an at-large long shot and has virtually no margin for error next month. Nonetheless, a week ago the Panthers were left for dead and a glimmer of hope is better than no hope at all.