Pitt notebook: Syracuse loss still sticks with Panthers

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 9:36 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY ­— To check the pulse of the Pitt locker room Wednesday, it was easy to get the idea the Panthers were still trying to win their last game rather than their NCAA Tournament opener Thursday against Wichita State.

“We can't start slow again,” forward J.J. Moore said.

“We've got to be ready this time,” guard Durand Johnson said.

To a man, no matter the topic raised, the players kept coming back to the slow start that cost them dearly in the one-and-done 62-59 loss to Syracuse in the Big East Tournament last week in New York.

Even Jamie Dixon was hinting at it in some of his answers.

“This is a team that's gotten better, especially defensively,” the coach said. “But with that said, we've got to do it every game, every minute. It's a team, I think, that knows they can get better.”

If only ...

But as it was, Pitt fell behind Syracuse by 13 at halftime, went 5:33 without a basket, and a furious second-half rally couldn't undo it.

The team speaks about the game with an intense regret, albeit more focused on what lessons can be drawn rather than simply revisiting it.

“We know we're a good team when we play the way we should, but we've had a hard time at the start,” forward Talib Zanna said. “That's on our defense and our rebounding.”

That's the point Dixon and his staff have been stressing most in practices.

“Our foundation is defense and rebounding, then getting some of our points off that,” assistant coach Brandin Knight said. “If we're able to get some buckets off turnovers or a good transition, that takes some of the pressure off our offense, where we don't have to do everything from the half-court set.”

Even there, Knight felt compelled to add, “But it's got to happen right at the start.”

A dreaded cut

Carl Hall, a Wichita State forward who averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, shocked the Shockers two days before the NCAA Tournament by cutting off his signature, shoulder-length dreadlocks, which he'd worn for five years.

“I just wanted to be like a new person coming into the tournament,” Hall said.

It only makes Hall appear to be at a greater disadvantage in defending Pitt's 7-foot center Steven Adams. Hall said he hopes to either lure Adams out of the paint to keep him from blocking shots or to drive around him.

“He is very large,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said of Adams. “I haven't seen him in person, but Carl is maybe 6-8 now that he's cut his hair.”

Student reporter

Pitt guard Cam Wright was cracking up his teammates in the mostly loose room by pretending to be a TV reporter for something he was calling the “Pitt News Network.”

Best question and answer came with forward Lamar Patterson:

Wright: “So, Mr. Patterson, do you have any alligators in your house?”

Patterson: “Why, yes, actually, I do.”

He really does.

No. T.J.

T.J. McConnell, the Arizona guard whose transfer out of Duquesne last year proceeded the firing of Ron Everhart, did not accompany the Wildcats to the tournament because transfer rules keep coach Sean Miller from using him until next year.

Miller's regret?

Miller, the former Pitt and Blackhawk star, leads his team against Belmont on Thursday. He'll do so as a surprising No. 6 seed for a 25-7 team that finished second in the Pac-12.

“I'm very happy to have the sixth seed,” Miller said. “We're just happy to be here. That's a point I make to my kids all the time.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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