In Joe Lunardi’s latest mock bracket at ESPN, he projects that fans in Indianapolis will get to see top seed Indiana disembowel either Texas Southern or Western Illinois, before moving on to meet the winner of an 8-9 Pitt vs. Kansas State matchup. Were the Panthers to prevail in their round of 64 game against the Wildcats, it would set up a collision between what are now two of the best five or six teams in the country statistically.
It’s true. Whether your laptop-based rating system of choice comes from Jeff Sagarin or Ken Pomeroy, you’ll find Jamie Dixon’s team ranked right up there with the Hoosiers, Syracuse, Michigan, and that snooty crowd. This is what happens when you outscore your opponents by 0.41 points per possession.
So much for laptops. Humans know that Pitt hasn’t beaten “anyone” (their “best” win would be their victory at home over Lehigh), and that they were taken to overtime at home by Oakland. That’s why the Panthers are still unranked.
I’m here to mediate this laptop-human tussle. It’s what I do.
Even though Pitt laid an egg against the Golden Grizzlies, there’s a significant likelihood that the Panthers are for real, where “real” simply means something closer to what the laptops are saying (No. 5 or 6) than what the humans are voting (No. 27). Note for example that the performance we’re seeing from this team is not merely a case of showing off against helpless opponents. These guys are just good. In the Panthers’ last two home blowouts, the starters have averaged just 22 minutes.
And, anyway, why single out Pitt for their weak schedule? To this point that schedule (No. 288 SOS in Division I) rates out as similar to Ohio State’s weak schedule (No. 276), and stronger than Missouri’s weak schedule (320). Good teams sometimes play weak schedules. Indeed, Pitt, Ohio State, and Missouri are all one-loss teams that came up short in their one shot against an elite opponent (Michigan, Duke, and Louisville, respectively).
At the moment Dixon has no fewer than six players who’ve posted offensive ratings of 125 or better. Let’s put that into context: Steven Adams is a seven-foot freshman who’s projected to play in the NBA someday. He already takes excellent care of the ball and makes 60 percent of his twos. And on this roster that’s been good enough to make him the No. 9 option on offense.
Naturally I’ll be much more confident in my grasp of Pitt’s true worth once Big East play begins. That’s why, for now, I have ranked the Panthers at a lowly No. 10, and not the lofty No. 5 or 6 suggested by the rating systems. But you should harbor no illusions about what’s taken place so far. Scoring 1.27 points per possession is amazing, and this team’s performance to date has been far more aberrant than their schedule. If we’re lucky, Indiana and Pitt really will play in the NCAA tournament, because the Hoosiers and Panthers may turn out to have the two best offenses in the country.