After Pittsburgh’s most recent performance, the Panthers can’t afford to look past anybody in this season’s NCAA tournament, no matter how intriguing the potential future opponents might be.
The Panthers appear to understand that as they prepare to face a dangerous Wright State team Thursday in a first-round game at Buffalo, N.Y.
As the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, Pittsburgh (27-7) has its highest seed since it was third in 2004, the last time it reached the round of 16.
In order for that to happen this season, the Panthers must bounce back a 65-42 loss to Georgetown in last Saturday’s Big East tournament final. Pittsburgh scored the fewest points in the history of that tournament’s title game and shot only 26.6 percent (16-for-61) from the field.
“We are going to definitely have to put this behind us and look ahead,” Panthers guard Antonio Graves said. “We have another tournament coming up, which is the most important tournament.”
Some interesting matchups down the road, however, have the potential to shift the Panthers’ mindset as they meet a 14th-seeded Wright State (23-9) team that has won 11 of its last 12 games and both the Horizon League regular-season and tournament titles.
With a win Thursday, Pittsburgh could face perennial power Duke in the second round. With two victories, UCLA and former Panthers coach Ben Howland could be waiting in the regional semifinals.
“We’re definitely looking forward to the Dukes and UCLAs,” Graves said. “But we have to take care of one game at a time. You can’t look past the so-called ‘mid major’ teams, because every year they beat the powerhouse teams.”
Wright State upset Butler - a fifth seed in the Midwest Regional this year - to win the Horizon tournament title and also beat the Bulldogs once during the regular season.
Knowing that, the Panthers aren’t expected to take their first-round opponent lightly.
“It’s natural to see all those things when the brackets come out,” forward Levon Kendall said. “That’s what the challenge of the tournament is - not to look ahead. For us to get to those matchups, you have to take care of your side of things.”
The Panthers will need star center Aaron Gray to bounce back after two poor Big East tournament games. The 7-foot senior, who averages 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds, managed just 11 points and five rebounds in his last two games combined. Gray shot 1-for-13 from the field against Georgetown.
Mike Cook, a transfer from East Carolina, is the only other Panthers player to average double figures at 10.5 points per game, but had only four versus the Hoyas.
Pittsburgh is playing in the NCAA tournament for a school-record sixth year in a row. The Panthers are 15-19 all-time in NCAA tournament play and were upset 72-66 by Bradley in the second round as a No. 5 seed last season.
Wright State is making its second tournament appearance - and first since 1993 - thanks to a 60-55 win over Butler in the conference tournament final on March 6.
Horizon League player of the year Dashaun Wood scored 27 points in the title game and averaged 26.0 points - more than six above his season average of 19.8 - in two conference tournament games for the Raiders.
Coach Brad Brownell, in his first season at Wright State after taking North Carolina-Wilmington to the NCAA tournament twice, told the Raiders before the season they could make it this far despite a 13-15 record in 2005-06.
“Coach came in from day one and said we could make it,” Wood said. “All I know is we did make it. And nobody else thought it could be done.”
In their 1993 tournament appearance, the Raiders lost 97-54 to Indiana in the first round. They also won an NCAA Division II title in 1983.
Wright State is 0-2 all-time against Pittsburgh.