lair – Getting to 20 wins does matter

The answers in the post-game press conference were almost as predictable as they were reasonable.

In separate instances, both Pitt head coach Jeff Capel and senior point guard Nelly Cummings were asked about the Panthers’ accomplishments this season. And in both instances, Capel and Cummings declined to take a big-picture view.

That’s understandable for the coach and the player. Pitt was fresh off a 76-68 win over Georgia Tech, a bounce-back victory that served as a bridge between last Saturday’s loss at Virginia Tech, which ended a six-game winning streak, and this coming Saturday’s game against Syracuse, which will serve as the regular-season home finale.

In the two-plus hours that preceded the press conference, Capel, Cummings and the rest of the Pitt team battled with Georgia Tech, a group that came to the Petersen Events Center having won just three ACC games all season. But thanks to the Panthers’ poor defense and some untimely turnovers, the Yellow Jackets hung in for nearly the entire 40 minutes.

In the end, clutch shots, a little extra defensive intensity, some well-placed full-court pressure and a perfect performance at the free throw line led Pitt to its eight-point win. For Capel and Cummings, it was a bounce-back, a game that prevented the loss at Virginia Tech from turning into a losing streak and another step through the grind of February.

For the rest of the world – at least the Pitt world – it was something more.

It was win No. 20.

20 is a big number in college basketball. If ever there was a separation point between an average season and an above-average season, a line between a solid season and a good season, it’s 20 wins.

Jamie Dixon’s streak of 11 consecutive 20-win seasons stood as one of his defining achievements as Pitt’s head coach, and when he left for TCU, he had won at least 20 in 12 of his 13 seasons with the Panthers – a model of consistency by reaching that win plateau.

But Dixon’s last season was the last time Pitt hit that number. The Panthers went 21-12 in the 2015-16 season and haven’t won more than 16 since.

Until now.

With 28 games played and three remaining in the regular season – plus however many contests the postseason brings – Pitt has reached 20 wins once again. In a season of benchmarks reached and “the last time…” notables achieved, the Panthers have hit a big one.

For Capel and Cummings, though, the achievement is secondary to the task at hand.

“I think it definitely means something, but we’re in a grind right now, so we’re focused on the next opportunity we’re going to have,” Cummings said after the game. “So, yeah, the 20 wins is special, but we’re not done.”

Pitt’s opportunity to build on 20 wins will put the Panthers to the test. They will host Syracuse on Saturday for the home finale and then spend the last week of the regular season on the road, traveling to Notre Dame for Mike Brey’s South Bend swan song on Wednesday and then closing out the schedule at Miami on Saturday. All three games will bring considerable challenges for the best Pitt team in seven years.

Because of those challenges, Capel’s not thinking long-term at this point in the season.

“I think what this team has done all year – it has been really good, and it’s something that I certainly don’t take for granted, we don’t take for granted – but like Nelly mentioned, we’re in the moment right now, man and it’s hard to kind of reflect on those type of things right now because we know we have a heck of a game coming up on Saturday, our last home game in front of this crowd that’s been unbelievable all year, especially the Zoo, and we’ll focus on that. Then we have two road games, one of which is going to be that coach’s last game there. That’s going to be very emotional. And then one against one of the better teams in the country.

“So we have a lot of games left. We’ll reflect on it when it’s over with, but it’s certainly something we don’t take for granted.”

In the meantime, there’s plenty to appreciate right now. This year’s Pitt team is the first to post an overall winning record since that 2015-16 season. These Panthers are the first to secure a winning record in conference play since the 2013-14 season. They have set a new program high for ACC wins with 13 (and counting). They’re well on their way to earning their highest seed in the ACC Tournament ever. And the chances seem fairly high right now that this Pitt team will hear its name called when the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced – the first time that has happened in seven years.

On Tuesday night, Pitt passed another milepost in a season full of them.