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Mike Lopresti | | January 10, 2016

College basketball: Pittsburgh defying expectations so far in the ACC

  Pittsburgh has started 3-0 in the ACC and has only lost one game. Is it the year the Panthers break through?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notice what the team picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic Coast Conference has been up to?

That would be Pittsburgh.  As in 14-1 Pittsburgh. As in 85-points-a-game Pittsburgh. As in grind-it-out-no-more Pittsburgh.

The Panthers have always been known for gritting their teeth on defense, and scoring just enough. Kind of like the Steelers down the road, only without the shoulder pads. Now they are going at the basket from anywhere and with anybody, or wanting to anyway. The 85-point average will surely shrink after a couple of months of ACC defenses, but the intention is clear.

"We’ve got to attack,’’ coach Jamie Dixon was saying here Saturday. That was after his team blitzed Notre Dame 28-10 in the first eight minutes, and then protected the lead the rest of the afternoon to win 86-82 and start 3-0 in the ACC.

With a 72-59 loss to Purdue its only blemish, Pittsburgh has attacked its way into the rankings, after a 2014-15 season of uncharacteristic struggle. Those Panthers missed the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in 12 Dixon years and lost their last five games to finish 19-15. In this year’s pre-season poll, they were picked to finish 10th in the ACC, just below Syracuse and just above Wake Forest.

"We don’t even talk about it,’’ Dixon said of last season. "We had all kinds of things happen. It was just a crazy year.

"We knew we were a different team pretty early.’’

Not just in record, but style. The Panthers were one and done in the NIT last March and scored 54 points in the loss to George Washington. Enough of that. Pittsburgh has a pack of talented and eager scorers, and this was to be the year the officials were supposed to be giving the offense some breathing room. "It’s a different game. It is what it is,’’ Dixon said. So why not take advantage?

"You look at our team and see how versatile everybody is,’’ point guard James Robinson said. "A lot of guys are interchangeable. Anybody can handle the ball, anybody can shoot it. That’s kind of not what Pitt is really known for.’’

Say hello to the new-age Panthers. We can get to know them and their season by the numbers.

Robinson has an assist-turnover ratio of 81-12, the best in the nation, and his career ratio is the best in NCAA history for anyone with at least 400 assists. He has had more assists than turnovers in 111 of his 118 games.

"I’m just making sure when they’re open, I get it to them,’’ he said. "Once they’re open, it’s all in their hands.’’

At last count, Pitt was in the top-20 nationally in scoring, scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebound margin, assists, assists to turnovers – and No. 1 in free throw percentage at 79.3. They have outscored opponents by 122 points at the line. By the way, last season with much of the same cast, the Panthers were 184th in scoring. But times have changed.

Saturday was their first true road game. Would they melt in the hostility? Well, they shot 50 percent and had only seven turnovers. No.

Five different players have had double-doubles.

Leading scorers Michael Young (17.5) and Jamel Artis (16) are shooting 59.7 and 54.1 percent.

The lineup includes three players – Artis, Robinson and Young – who have started 49 consecutive games as a unit. Plus two transfer graduate students, Sterling Smith from Coppin State and Rafael Maia from Brown. Maybe, as Dixon said, they don’t talk much about last season, but the veterans remember it well enough.

"All the guys coming back were super hungry,’’ Robinson said of the sour taste. And maybe that has helped lead to their strong work ethic, and willingness to put in extra time.

"Off days are not off days for these guys,’’ Dixon said.

Dixon has won 321 games in his first 13 Division I seasons. Only three men in history have won more.

The Panthers traveled 16,500 miles to play one half. That was the Gonzaga game in Okinawa, called at halftime with Pittsburgh leading 37-35 because heat and humidity had led to unsafe court conditions.

This is the 75th anniversary of Pittsburgh’s one and only Final Four appearance. That was 1941. All 11 team members graduated and went to fight in World War II.

So it’d be a good year for them to make a run at finally going back to the Final Four, wouldn’t it?

Way too early to be talking that, though it is clear Pitt doesn’t look much like a 10th-place team. Dixon understands one area in particular has to be improved, having given up 84 and 82 points the last two games.

"As I’ve told these guys, we’ve got to figure out this defense thing,’ he said. ``The good news is we’ve got a team who can score like we’ve never had before. But we have to be more committed and understand the importance of the defensive end.’’

Might need that by Thursday. The Panthers are at Louisville.


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