TAMPA — Can a college basketball team open conference play with seven straight losses and still make the NCAA Tournament? Surging Pittsburgh, in town to play USF tonight at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, hopes to do just that in the next month.
Two weeks ago, the Panthers were 0-7 in Big East play, a team that was No. 10 in the preseason Associated Press poll somehow a month removed from its last win. But with the healthy return of point guard Tray Woodall, the Panthers have won four in a row.
"We're fighters. We have a winning program. Our coach is a winning coach, and he tells us to keep fighting," Woodall said Tuesday by phone, happy to be back in the lineup after missing six weeks with an abdominal injury. "We're just worrying about one team at a time, not looking ahead. You start looking ahead, you start thinking about who a team just lost to, you start downplaying teams and not playing to your full potential."
Pitt (15-9, 4-7) has shown itself a much different team with Woodall, who picked up national player of the week honors after averaging 26.5 points in wins against West Virginia and Villanova. Before that, he had 10 assists in an upset of No. 10 Georgetown.
USF coach Stan Heath, whose team faces the Panthers twice in the next 12 days, said he never let himself think he might have the benefit of facing a weakened Panthers lineup.
"When (Woodall) went out, I immediately looked at the timeframe for when he was going to come back, that he was going to be back for our games," Heath said. "So I was prepared, knowing we were going to face the Pittsburgh team that was picked in the top three of our league, not the Pittsburgh team that got off to an 0-7 start."
Woodall, a 5-foot-11 junior from Brooklyn, said his time on the bench was difficult as his teammates struggled without their floor leader. He earned a medical redshirt as a freshman after suffering a knee injury 10 games into the season, but the second absence was harder for him to endure.
"It was one of the worst experiences of my life, watching those guys fighting and fighting and not coming up with the result we wanted," he said.
Perhaps the midseason adversity can help the Panthers in March, should they make the NCAA field. Last year, Pitt started 7-0 in Big East play, finishing 15-3 for the regular-season crown only to be upset by eighth seed Connecticut (the eventual national champion) in the Panthers' first game in the Big East tournament. Then in the NCAAs, Pittsburgh was again a No. 1 seed and fell in the second round to Butler, which wound up the national runner-up.
This season, the Panthers could find themselves in the role of low-seeded spoiler, a team far better than its record would indicate. Pitt was 6-1 before Woodall's injury, and he hopes to finish the season at the same high level the Panthers opened it, with a greater sense of urgency to his play.
"I try to leave it all on the court," Woodall said. "Anything can happen. If there's one thing I took from me being hurt, it's that it can snap right before your eyes. One slide can set off a season-ending injury. My mantra now is to be aggressive, knowing every possession we have the ball, every chance I have, I have to give it all I've got."