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Friday, January 17, 2014
Weekend homework: Pitt perceptions

By Eamonn Brennan

The following is true of the Pittsburgh Panthers: [Correction: A glitch in the ESPN.com RPI page data is apparently causing every team in the country to rank No. 1 in strength of schedule. If only it were so easy! Pitt's actual SOS, per RealTimeRPI.com, is 105. That's still too high, relative to the actual strength of Pitt's opponents, but it's not No. 1, which was insane. Some light edits to the original copy follow. My apologies for the error. -- EB]

Despite all of these pieces of information, Pittsburgh has spent almost all of 2013-14 season outside the top 25. Few have cited Jamie Dixon's team as an ACC contender in its first season in the league; fewer have called it a national title contender. Instead, Pittsburgh has floated along under the radar for nearly six weeks, because no one has any idea what to make of Pitt, because Pitt's schedule has been awful.


After this season, we need to give Dixon a lifetime achievement award in the area of RPI exploitation brilliance. According to tempo-free statistics (not to mention most viewers’ accurate descriptions), Pittsburgh’s overall schedule ranks somewhere near the 200 range; its nonconference schedule is even worse. According to the RPI, the Panthers have played the toughest schedule in the country to date. Too funny.

Down here in the real world, save a Thanksgiving-week game in Brooklyn against Stanford, the only time the Panthers popped their heads up from their dour nonconference minnow-feast was in December, when Cincinnati (which is regarded more highly now than it was then) escaped Pittsburgh with a 44-43 win … in 48 possessions. Good defense, bad offense, or both, the Panthers were easy to dismiss: Their wins a product of their schedule, their impressive efficiency numbers a product of malevolent computers.

Since then, Pittsburgh has kept winning, and usually in impressive fashion. Really, a 58-46 New Year’s Eve sleepwalk against Albany was the last time Dixon’s team wasn’t in obvious command of its situation. The only problem is that even the front end of Pitt’s ACC schedule — it has played NC State, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, which run the gamut from “transitioning” to “rebuilding” to “disappointing” — has left it without an opportunity to once and truly prove themselves.

Saturday -- a road trip to play unbeaten No. 2 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome -- is that chance.

In one sense, it’s unfair to ask Pittsburgh to prove its viability by beating Syracuse in Syracuse; that’s like asking me to prove the viability of my legs by running a marathon. (I’m good, thanks.) In another sense, it’s completely fair. Dixon’s canny (and rather hilarious) gaming of the RPI will likely hold Pitt in good stead on Selection Sunday, but for now the gulf between efficiency statistics, RPI and eye-test perception has fueled a very public gap about the merits of the Panthers themselves. Saturday could reconcile all of that.