After piling up early-season victories against overmatched opponents the past five weeks, undefeated Pittsburgh pointed to Tuesday night's matchup with Cincinnati as its chance to validate its torrid start.
Instead the Panthers delivered easily their worst performance this season, inspiring more questions regarding whether their gaudy record is merely a product of a embarrassingly soft non-conference schedule.
In a slow-paced rock fight of a game that surely didn't make anyone nostalgic for the former Big East, Cincinnati snapped a two-game losing streak by edging Pittsburgh 44-43 on a Titus Rubles put-back with five seconds remaining. Only guard Sean Kilpatrick entered Tuesday's game averaging double digit points for the Bearcats, yet Pittsburgh still couldn't score enough to win despite holding him to a quiet nine points on 4 of 9 shooting.
The primary reason Pittsburgh lost were a pair of field goal droughts spanning nearly eight minutes in the first half and almost 14 minutes in the second. Lamar Patterson, a 77.8 percent free throw shooter this season, also missed a pair of late foul shots that could have extended the Panthers' lead to three with 22 seconds to go, a fitting way for cold-shooting Pitt to let a win slip away.
If Pitt doesn't like that this loss will likely serve as a referendum on its team until the heart of the ACC season, the Panthers can blame a non-conference schedule virtually devoid of challenging opponents.
Unable to secure a quality home-and-home series and stuck with middling Penn State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Pitt stormed to a 10-0 start against opponents whose average RPI was 180.5 and average KenPom ranking was 183.9. The only two teams with a top 100 RPI the Panthers have beaten so far this season are Stanford, Penn State and Fresno State.
An emphatic neutral-court win over Cincinnati in the Jimmy V Classic probably wouldn't have elevated Pittsburgh to title contender status either in the ACC or nationally, but it certainly would have been the Panthers' most significant victory. Despite back-to-back losses to New Mexico and Xavier, Cincinnati (8-2) is an NCAA tournament caliber team that is 82-33 the past three-plus seasons.
Alas, Pittsburgh couldn't score efficiently enough to beat its former Big East rival.
Pittsburgh entered Tuesday's game sixth in the nation in points per possession (1.24), ninth in offensive rebounding percentage (41.7) and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.79-to-1). That none of it translated against the first quality opponent the Panthers have seen will only lead to more skepticism about whether Pitt's 10-0 start was a schedule-induced mirage.
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