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Insider

Pittsburgh leads upswing teams

2/2/2012

College basketball has become like the weather in Scotland: If you don't like it, wait a few minutes and it will change. Well, it may be a bit longer than a few minutes in college hoops, but fortunes can change quickly in this game, and a team that looks like it is headed toward the Final Four can be derailed and crater.

Similarly, a team that looked dead and buried -- and made you wonder if it would ever win again -- can rise up and charge straight into the postseason. The roller coaster of college basketball is much more a marathon than a sprint, and the teams that keep fighting and stay positive and stick together through dark periods can come out the other side and do something special.

Here are some of those teams that are on the upswing:


Pittsburgh Panthers

When the Panthers lost Tray Woodall to an injury, he was averaging 14 points and eight assists per game. Without him, Pitt lost seven in a row, including an embarrassing loss at home to Wagner. Without making excuses, coach Jamie Dixon said that having Woodall out changed his team, and he stayed on course and stayed positive. Dixon maintained that Pitt was a good team and the Panthers would play like themselves again soon. But Pitt couldn't make shots and couldn't guard anybody and, from the outside, things looked bleak.

Then, with Woodall back, Pitt lost its eighth in a row to Louisville at home, and Woodall did not look like he was going to make a big enough difference. But a funny thing happened after Pitt was written off. The Panthers won games against Providence and Georgetown, and on Monday they won a game at West Virginia in which Woodall played an extraordinary game and Pitt looked like Pitt again. The team I saw in Morgantown did not resemble the team that lost eight in a row, and Woodall looked like the best point guard in the country. He was driving the ball, pulling up, blasting off ball screens and controlling the game on both ends.

Woodall wound up with 24 points, four rebounds and three assists, Pittsburgh got the W, and Dixon said that he preferred to view his team as 3-0 rather than 3-7. With eight Big East games remaining, it is conceivable that Pitt could go on a win streak and put itself into the at-large conversation. Pitt remains the best offensive rebounding team in the Big East and appears to be a new team with new life. Don't be surprised to see Pitt in the NCAA tournament.


Washington Huskies

Coach Lorenzo Romar has nine freshmen on his roster, and while senior guard Scott Suggs was lost for the season due to a foot injury, the Huskies still had quality talent and athletes. But when Washington faced some of its competition in the nonconference season, it proceeded to lay egg after egg. Washington lost to St. Louis, Nevada, Marquette and Duke, the last three by one or two possessions each. Losses to South Dakota State and Cal underscored that Washington had played a good schedule but hadn't beaten anyone.

But after watching the Huskies in the desert, this is an NCAA tournament-worthy team. Terrence Ross is a special player, C.J. Wilcox is one of the nation's elite shooters, and freshman guard Tony Wroten is an amazing talent who is learning to not only go for the home run but also hit to the opposite field every once in a while. Wins against Arizona and Arizona State are a big stride forward, but they will need more.

Remaining games include two against UCLA, a road trip to Oregon and Oregon State, and a rematch with Arizona in Seattle. Washington needs to play its very best to crack the at-large pool, but this team is good enough to do that.


Louisville Cardinals

Louisville was 12-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country, but the Cardinals' shooting numbers were unusually low. But after a win against Western Kentucky where Louisville was on the ropes, the Cards lost five of their next seven games, including a 31-point loss to Providence and a double-digit loss to Marquette -- a game in which Cardinals were up by 16 points early. When Kyle Kuric went out with an injured foot, Louisville lost its swagger and its perimeter shooting.

But when Kuric returned for the Pittsburgh game, he was outstanding, and Louisville looked pretty darn good again. After ripping off three straight wins, Louisville is far from living up to the early No. 4 ranking, but for a team that doesn't shoot well from the perimeter and turns it over too much, Louisville looks like a team that is on the upswing and NCAA tournament-bound.


Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Gophers looked like road kill when leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe went down for the season in November. Coach Tubby Smith had his team playing hard and well, but he also had them playing teams that perhaps could not offer up significant resistance. In fact, only one of the Gophers' opponents ranked in the top 100. When Big Ten play arrived, Minnesota started out 0-4, but all the losses were competitive. Then, on Jan. 12, Minnesota pulled off an upset at Indiana and followed it up with wins against Northwestern and Illinois, winning four games out of the next five overall.

Minnesota turns it over too much, but behind the improved play of Rodney Williams, Julian Welch, Ralph Sampson III and Joe Coleman, it guards and rebounds pretty well and can manufacture enough scoring to compete with good teams. But the key has been the Gophers' toughness, and that emanates from one place: Tubby Smith. The problem is Minnesota's upcoming schedule. In its final eight games, Minnesota plays Nebraska twice, Wisconsin twice, Ohio State (home), Northwestern (away), Michigan State and Indiana (both home). The Gophers' upswing will have to continue for those difficult games to result in wins. Their loss Wednesday night at Iowa should prove that this team still has work to do.