For most of Jamie Dixon tenure as Pittsburgh coach, the Panthers have consistently found upperclassmen capable of patching the holes left by graduated stars well enough to enable the program to remain among the Big East's upper crust year after year.
Pittsburgh's veterans still have time to make that happen again this season, but evidence is beginning to mount that the Panthers may be headed for a rare rebuilding season.
First came the unexpected transfer of freshman center Khem Birch, the most decorated recruit to sign with Pittsburgh in Dixon's tenure. Next was an inexplicable home loss to Wagner on Friday night, further puncturing the Panthers' aura of invincibility at Petersen Events Center. And finally Notre Dame extended Pittsburgh's woes on Tuesday night with a surprisingly easy 72-59 victory at the Joyce Center.
Perhaps too much is being made of the Panthers' rough patch since they're still 11-3 and their last two losses occurred with point guard Tray Woodall at less than full strength, but a closer examination of Pittsburgh's schedule reveals cracks.
The lone power-conference teams the Panthers have beaten so far this year are struggling Tennessee and NIT-caliber Oklahoma State. A convincing loss to Notre Dame certainly doesn't inspire confidence either considering the Irish (9-5) have lost to the likes of Georgia and Maryland already this season.
The problems facing Pittsburgh were on full display in the second half Tuesday night when Notre Dame stormed back from a one-point halftime deficit to lead by double figures for the final eight minutes of the game.
Pittsburgh's trademark defense continues to be absent this season, enabling Notre Dame to score 47 second-half points on 18-for-25 shooting. The Panthers also lacked a guard able to beat his man off the dribble and create for others with Ashton Gibbs blanketed by Notre Dame's defense and Woodall still hampered by an abdominal tear.
The result was another low-scoring game in which Pittsburgh shot 39.3 percent from the field, sank just 1 of 15 attempts from behind the arc and didn't have any player score more than 13 points. Those types of numbers won't be sufficient in the Panthers' next three games against Cincinnati, DePaul and Rutgers, let alone when the Big East schedule stiffens later this winter.
Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise Pittsburgh appears to have taken a step backward this year considering the Panthers lost guards Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker and center Gary McGhee to graduation.
Pittsburgh got the benefit of the doubt because of its track record. It's up to this year's Panthers to turn things around and prove they deserved it.