PITTSBURGH (AP) The four players tasked with overseeing a transition they never asked for and never saw coming can't quite explain what went wrong.
It wasn't, Pittsburgh seniors Jamel Artis, Mike Young, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones insist, longtime head coach Jamie Dixon's abrupt departure for TCU last spring or Kevin Stallings' inelegant arrival a couple of weeks later. It wasn't, they believe, the lack of a true point guard or ACC-ready big man. It wasn't any sense of doubt about their ability, or Stallings' for that matter.
''I look at those as kind of excuses,'' Young said. ''You've got to be able to get it done. In my career we've always had a good team, camaraderie and chemistry. We haven't been able to get over that hump.''
One that looks as daunting as ever for the Panthers (15-13, 4-11 ACC) as the seniors prepare to say goodbye to the Petersen Events Center on Saturday when No. 8 North Carolina (24-5, 12-3) visits.
Any semblance of a chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament evaporated in the final minutes against Wake Forest on Wednesday, when a 19-point lead turned into a 63-59 loss.
The team that once flew so high in the Big East is struggling in the nation's toughest conference. It's not the going away party any of the seniors envisioned.
''It hasn't been a smooth ride,'' Young said.
Yet the four players who will be walk onto the court with family members on Saturday, shake hands with Stallings and wave one last time to the Oakland Zoo aren't ready to bail following a season of unmet expecations, much of them out of the core four's control. No group in the ACC has been asked to do so much to cover so many holes.
Artis slid from forward to point guard because Dixon failed to recruit an experienced and capable ball handler following James Robinson's graduation. The 6-foot-7 Jeter is one of the shortest power forwards in the country, though it hasn't stopped him from leading the Panthers in rebounds, blocks and steals. Young was a double-double machine as a sophomore and junior and worked hard last summer to stretch his game offensively, becoming a competent 3-point shooter in the process.
When it became apparent Pitt needed Young down low, the kid who watched the Panthers more than hold their own in the Big East while growing up just down the Monongahela River from the school's Oakland campus dutifully accepted the reassignment. Young practically willed the Panthers out of an eight-game freefall despite spending a month in a protective mask after fracturing the orbital bone in his right eye.
Asked how he wants to be remembered and Young - the seventh-leading scorer in school history - says simply ''a Pitt legend.'' Only he understands that reaching such a lofty status requires something besides performing with stoic efficiency. You need to win, and Young understands Pitt hasn't done it nearly enough.
If Young's being honest, it's the close calls and not the blowouts that hurt the most. Pitt is just 1-6 in ACC games decided by five points or less. Flip that number and the Panthers are in the thick of the NCAA race. Only they're not, and the inability to close out tight games at times has shaken their confidence.
''You have moments where you think about things, you doubt things,'' Young said. ''I think that's with all people. That's just human.''
Don't confuse introspection with resignation. The Panthers and their coach stress they have not given up. Last Saturday Pitt responded to a home loss to Virginia Tech by blowing past No. 17 Florida State in the second half. A week later they'll be asked to bounce back one more time.
Maybe things haven't turned out the way Young, Artis, Jeter and Jones planned. All year they've walked by a large banner outside the Pete trumpeting the home schedule, silently crossing out each game as it passed. There are no more after Saturday afternoon. There's also nothing left to lose.
''These next three games,'' Jeter said, ''the resiliency we'll show will have an impact on what our legacies are going to be.''
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