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Among The Elite

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It's March. In many cities, that means spring is in the air and baseball is around the corner. In Pittsburgh—or at least in Oakland—it means basketball. Big time basketball. Elite basketball.

The Pitt Panthers enter this March ranked fourth in the nation, leading a ridiculously rugged and multifaceted Big East Conference by two games and hot on the heels of their second No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in three years. Every spring for a decade now it's been the same: high seeds, high stakes, high expectations, and ultimately, disappointment.

Amid all the success, the oft-repeated refrain of Pitt supporters—and their detractors—has become, “is this finally the year?”

The simple answer to that question is no. This is not the year Pitt basketball gets to the next level. There is no "next level" for Pitt basketball.

They are already there.

Pitt plays it's basketball on the same level—the very same level—as Syracuse, UConn, Villanova, Michigan State, Ohio State, Florida, Arizona and Texas. Perhaps Pitt is behind those programs—perhaps—but the Panthers most definitely play with them. There is no higher level; there's only the rarefied air where programs like Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA currently reside (Indiana, apparently, has relocated).

The other common refrain around this time of year is, “why does Pitt underachieve in March?"

If you want to make the argument that the program underachieves, go right ahead. When the clearly-stated, openly-discussed, only acceptable goal is a  national championship? Then yes, fine, they underachieve.

But notice where the bar is. Notice the effort it's taken to reach that bar. And notice that the bar only continues to get pushed ever upward. Once the bar is reached, it's never grasped and held onto. It's nudged higher.

Sweet 16? Great, now get to the next round.

Elite 8? Wonderful, but D-up Scottie Reynolds next time.

Big East Championship? Been there, done that – win an NCAA Championship.

Jamie Dixon and his players crave those challenges because they've created those challenges – from scratch.

Elite 8 runs, No. 1 rankings, Big East regular season championships, Big East tournament titles, and ever-improving recruiting classes have created high expectations that are difficult to live up to. Falling short of Dwyane Wade and Scottie Reynolds never meant the Panthers accepted that fate; it only created an internal demand to get better.

That's the cut-throat mentality that Pitt basketball has adopted. It starts at the top and it boils down to everyone on the roster.

Pitt lost four starters—two to the NBA—from the 2008-09 squad that reached the Elite 8. Big deal. They won 25 games the next season with a brand new line-up.

The Panthers lost their best recruiter when assistant coach Tom Herrion left to take the head coaching job at Marshall last spring. So what? The new staff went out and landed McDonalds All-American Khem Birch.

Pitt lost it's leading scorer when Ashton Gibbs partially tore his MCL last month. Who cares? The rest of the team promptly went 3-0 without him, beating two consecutive ranked opponents on the road.

So could this be the year? Absolutely.

The 2010-11 Panthers are deep, mentally and physically tough, cohesive and far more talented than they're given credit for. They are brutally efficient on the offensive end, they defend, they rebound. They just make it so damn difficult to beat them. And they've got a cold-blooded killer on the floor in Gibbs. But perhaps more importantly, this year's field does not contain a single team that presents a bad match-up for Pitt.

But it doesn't really matter when the Panthers lose—if they lose—because a run of good teams in Oakland has given way to one great program. One that does not appear to be going away any time soon.

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