NEW YORK -- West Virginia's band was bidding DeJuan Blair a fond adieu, waving at him in unison as he made his way to Pittsburgh's bench with 1:17 left on the clock on Thursday night. The Big East co-Player of the Year did not reciprocate the wavers' glee; instead, he plopped himself down in between two assistant coaches, and momentarily buried his face in a towel. Blair had just fouled out for the third time this season, and the result was the same as in the previous two: Pitt lost.
The score here was 74-60, Mountaineers, and it was hardly the last impression the second-ranked Panthers wanted to leave before entering an NCAA tournament in which they're one of the favorites to win. Blair, who had just five rebounds, looked as bothered as he'd ever been during his sophomore All-America campaign. He was frustrated by early whistles and West Virginia's collapsing, 1-3-1 defense -- frustrated enough that he was whistled for a technical for throwing an elbow at Alex Ruoff with 11:06 left in the game and Pitt trailing 53-47. That was Blair's third personal foul; his fourth came less than five minutes later, and he only stayed on the floor for 18 minutes. "We knew that when Blair gets in foul trouble, they're not as hard to beat," said Mountaineers point guard Darryl Bryant, "and look what happened tonight."
Three and a half weeks from now in Detroit, Pitt may be able to laugh about this game, and look back at it as a small slip-up on the way to a national title. For in the grand scheme of things, we know this:
• The Panthers still seem like a lock for a No. 1 seed with the opportunity to play in Dayton, Ohio, (for the first- and second-rounds) and Indianapolis (for the regionals). As coach Jamie Dixon reminded us in the press-conference, "We came in [to the Big East tournament] with the No. 1 RPI" -- and they'll likely remain No. 1 in the RPI on Selection Sunday.
• Extra rest isn't necessarily a bad thing. Pitt appeared in the Big East finals in each of the past three years -- and proceeded to lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed in '06, the Sweet 16 as a No. 3 seed in '07, and the second round as a No. 4 seed in '08. The Panthers haven't outperformed their seeding in the dance since 1981, when they upset seventh-seeded Idaho as a No. 10 in the first round. Perhaps an extra two days off will give them the extra juice they need to reach the Final Four.
They will enter the tournament with one nagging concern, though -- the same one that will give poolsters pause in picking the Panthers to win it all:
• At all costs, Pitt needs to avoid a recurrence of its doomsday scenario: Falling behind in the second half with Blair and his rebounding sidekick, Tyrelle Biggs, sitting on the bench or simply playing cautious due to foul trouble. (As WVU forward Kevin Jones said, "Blair was way less aggressive today once he had three fouls.") The Panthers have the nation's second-most efficient offense, but it depends so much on rebounding that it's nearly impossible for them to mount a comeback when they're not dominating the glass. They're capable of beating any team in the country, but also capable of losing to lesser clubs like West Virginia and Providence when DeJuan Blair isn't allowed to be DeJuan Blair.
Elsewhere in the college hoops world:
• Providence looks NIT-bound. Louisville's Rick Pitino, the former Friars coach who said he still roots for the school ("It's like my unofficial alma mater"), argued on Thursday that Providence should unequivocally be in the NCAA tournament. "Any time you go over .500, in the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big East," he said, referring to Providence's 10-8 league record, "you should automatically be in." This could very well be a prime topic of debate in The Westin Indianapolis over the weekend, but our best guess is that the Big East will be a seven-bid league. The Friars finished in the upper half of the conference by beating up on the weak portion of an unbalanced schedule, and have just one big win -- over Pitt -- on their résumé. They sit at 71 in the RPI, well below fellow bubblers Creighton (39), San Diego State (43) and Arizona (54).
What may ultimately doom Providence is that on Thursday, it had a prime opportunity to pull off a bid-clinching upset against Pitino's Cardinals, but didn't show up to play at Madison Square Garden. Louisville looked sloppy, with Terrence Williams botching a dunk in the opening minute and the team hitting just 2-of-11 three-point attempts as well as committing 20 turnovers. Yet Providence was even worse, making only 2-of-17 long-range attempts and committing 26 turnovers. Friars coach Keno Davis' view of things was that "all this game did was put us right on the bubble," but in actuality, it may have burst.
• Marquette's locker room following its last-second loss to Villanova -- the first truly exciting moment of this Big East tournament -- was a morgue. Two-guard Jerel McNeal, who got into early foul trouble guarding Scottie Reynolds and also shot just 4-of-17 from the field, was slumped forward in his chair, silent. Dominic James, the former starting point guard who was lost for the season after breaking his left foot on Feb. 25, was scanning a box score stamped "unofficial," which meant it was hot off the presses. He was the only one who could find anything positive in the situation. He tapped Reynolds' stat line, which listed 21 points, and said, "We held him to three points in the second half."
If there was something to take away from that game, in which the Golden Eagles rallied from 47-31 down at half to lead 75-74 in the final seconds, it's that they aren't dead yet. There was worry that Marquette, without James, could no longer contend with elite opponents. They had lost to UConn, Louisville, Pitt and Syracuse in succession to close the season, but late on Thursday against the Wildcats, the Eagles finally showed signs of life, with new point guard Maurice Acker scoring 11 second-half points to spark the rally. "You usually can't take any moral victories," James said, "but I feel like this is an exception to that rule." It was enough to at least make me think twice about picking Marquette to be upset in the first round.
• Minnesota -- a team that did beat Louisville, in December -- is now in the bracket. The Gophers were on unsteady footing heading into the first day of Big Ten tournament, but they beat Northwestern, another team that was fighting for its bubble life. The Wildcats didn't play with the level of desperation that you'd expect from a team within 1-2 wins of making its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament.
• Louisville's quest for a No. 1 is still on track, even if T-Will doesn't care where they're slotted. I asked him if he'd be upset if Pitt and UConn -- the two teams that tied for second behind the Cardinals in the Big East regular season -- got No. 1s and Louisville didn't. His answer: "I wouldn't be angry because I don't know how the seeding works, I don't know anything about that. If we get a one-seed, great, if we get a two-seed, great. ... I'll leave that up to the guys behind those doors that do the selection."
• Kansas' loss to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament probably takes the Jayhawks out of the running for a No. 2 seed. UConn, Duke, Louisville, Memphis, Michigan State and Oklahoma should fill the final two No. 1 spots and the four No. 2s. Kansas is likely Minneapolis-bound as a No. 3.
• When the Big East divvied up locker-room assignments at MSG for the tournament, some teams got the tiny ones reserved for visiting clubs ... and Louisville got the Knicks' digs. This is what happens when you're coached by a former Knicks coach. You even get referred to as "Louisville Knicks" on the door sign:
• We have some answers on the Jerry Smith Brewers tattoo that appeared in yesterday's edition of the Style Archive. Smith told us that after he left Milwaukee, his hometown, he felt he needed to put something to remember it with on his arm. He felt like the retro Brewers logo was the appropriate choice, even though, he said, "I had never been to a Brewer game in my life." There was no good alternative. "I wasn't going to get a Bucks tattoo, that's for sure," he said. "I wasn't a Bucks fan."
Smith said he finally did get to a Brewer game this past October, when he flew home during an off-weekend for the Louisville team to catch the first MLB playoff game in Milwaukee in 26 years.
• If you're looking to find meaning in sometimes-meaningless conference tournament games, don't go and talk to Rick Majerus. St. Louis lost to Xavier on Thursday, making good on Majerus' prediction that his Billikens wouldn't win the Atlantic-10 tournament. He said that in the course of making a case that conference tournaments are B.S. (via The Dagger):
"I tell you what would be a real shame," Majerus said, "if we were to beat Xavier, and for Xavier not to go to the tournament. They're probably going anyway. They should go anyway. ... I really believe that the regular season is everything. We could win this, put on a hat and shirt -- we aren't going to win this -- and say, 'Oh, we're the champs.' What a phony thing that would be. We were the champs of that four-game tournament."
• Really, Clemson? You lost to Georgia Tech in the opening round of the ACC tournament? I keep looking for ways to believe that this year's Clemson team isn't like last year's, which started off similarly hot, earned a No. 5 seed, and then ended with a first-round loss to 12th-seeded Villanova. But the Tigers have now lost four of their past five games, to Virginia Tech, Florida State, Wake Forest and finally, the last-place team in the league, the Yellow Jackets. Clemson now faces the unenviable situation of being a five-seed in Boise.
• I wouldn't count out Arizona just yet. The bubble-icious Wildcats lost to Arizona State on Thursday -- for the third time this season -- to make an early exit from the Pac-10 tournament. But 'Zona's résumé, which still includes non-conference wins over Gonzaga and Kansas, and in-league wins over Washington and UCLA, should still be strong enough to get them into the dance. Their big concern will be how much weight the selection committee assigns to momentum: The 'Cats lost six of seven to close the season, and didn't put up a good fight against the Sun Devils.