- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

A team only needs a few weeks to resuscitate its postseason hopes.

Just ask Pittsburgh.

The Panthers, an NCAA tournament mainstay for a decade, looked lost without point guard Travon Woodall. Once virtually invulnerable in the Steel City, they lost at home to Wagner. And Cincinnati. And Rutgers.

Life wasn’t much better away from home, and Pittsburgh lost eight straight games in a span of a month. Woodall returned from a groin and abdomen injury for the last of them, a Jan. 21 home loss to Louisville.

At 11-9, the Panthers hardly seemed like a team going anywhere. Instead, Woodall helped resurrect their NCAA chances, and Pittsburgh constructed a four-game winning streak that included victories over Georgetown and West Virginia.

Sunday’s defeat of reeling Villanova nudged the Panthers into a tie for 10th place in the Big East, just another small step toward the Panthers salvaging a once-unraveling season. And while Pittsburgh isn’t quite an NCAA-worthy team just yet at 15-9 overall and 4-7 in the Big East, the rest of its February is manageable.

The Panthers won’t see any of the Big East’s top four teams again until at least the conference tournament. The only ranked opponent in their final seven games is No. 24 Louisville.

The turnaround isn’t complete, of course, but Pittsburgh has a chance to author the best revival of the season. Its competition for that honor includes these five candidates:

Arkansas: The Razorbacks were a pedestrian 5-3 with a galling loss to Houston in the middle December. Then first-year coach Mike Anderson’s team rattled off seven straight wins and began SEC play with a victory over Mississippi State.

Arkansas has since upended Michigan and Vanderbilt and enters Wednesday’s trip to Georgia at 16-7. But the Hogs have one gaping hole in their postseason resume: An ugly 0-7 record away from Fayetteville. If they can snag a couple on the road in the next few weeks, they might be an NCAA tournament team.

Drexel: The preseason CAA favorites stumbled to a 2-4 start, including an unexpected loss to Norfolk State and double-digit setbacks against Virginia, Saint Joseph’s and Delaware away from home. But since then, Bruiser Flint and Co. are 18-1, including an 11-game winning streak entering Wednesday’s trip to James Madison.

The Dragons don’t have enough of a nonconference profile to contend for an at-large NCAA berth, but with victories over George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, they’re the best bet to earn the top seed in the CAA tournament.

Iowa State: Now would be a fine time for the Mayor to seek re-election. Or at least a new contract. After all, Cyclones star-turned-NBA-player-turned-Cyclones-coach Fred Hoiberg has his alma mater at 17-6 and safely in this week’s projected NCAA field after a forgettable 5-3 start.

The highlights? Consecutive home defeats of Kansas and Kansas State, part of a three-game winning streak entering Tuesday’s visit to Oklahoma State. Iowa State hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2005, a streak that could easily end next month.

Miami: Jim Larranaga inherited a team with the backcourt and depth to make a push for the postseason, but the Hurricanes were a lackluster (though not embarrassing) 5-4 to open the season. Then big man Reggie Johnson came back from a knee injury, fortifying Miami inside and increasing the effectiveness of forward Kenny Kadji.

The biggest payoff came Sunday, when the Hurricanes shocked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Now 14-7 overall and 5-3 in the league, Miami is on track to contend for one of the four byes in the ACC tournament.

Washington: The Huskies split their first 10 games, capping the stretch with a 19-point loss at home to South Dakota State. Now, South Dakota State is better than most folks think, but that’s still a jarring defeat for a team expected to make its fourth straight NCAA trip.

That still can happen thanks to Washington’s play since then. The Huskies have won 11 of 13 (including five straight) and the lead in the feeble Pac-12. An at-large berth won’t be easy to secure, but it’s at least a remote possibility if Lorenzo Romar’s team rolls through February unblemished. And just like in the case of Pittsburgh, that would have been hard to believe six weeks ago.



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