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Panthers Insider: Pitt embraces underdog role in NCAA Tournament

| Monday, March 17, 2014, 10:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Lamar Patterson celebrates with Tailb Zanna during their defeat of Wake Forest in the second round of the ACC Tournament on Thursday, March 13, 2014, at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Talib Zanna dunks over Virginia's Mike Tobey in the first half of their ACC Tournament semifinal Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Greensboro, N.C.

Pitt is aware a No. 9 seed can make a Final Four run in the NCAA Tournament.

Wichita State did it last year — at the expense of the Panthers — after a 73-55 win over Pitt in a West Region second-round game in Salt Lake City.

“I definitely think it's good to see that it can happen,” Pitt sophomore point guard James Robinson said. “We've got faith in ourselves, faith in our coaches. We're going to take this one step at a time and just battle this thing out.”

Whether the Shockers, who went on to beat No. 1 Gonzaga next, can serve as inspiration for the Panthers is another story. Pitt must accomplish a first under Jamie Dixon: Beat a higher seed in the NCAA tourney.

The No. 9 Panthers (25-9) will get their chance against No. 8 Colorado (23-11) at 1:40 p.m. Thursday in a South Region second-round game at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

“Just being in the tournament is inspiration enough for us,” Pitt senior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “We know what we have to do. We have to go out there, play solid and get Ws.”

That's been a problem for Pitt in recent years in the NCAA tourney.

Six times in its past 11 appearances, the Panthers lost to a team that reached the Final Four: Wichita State last year, Butler (2012), Villanova '09), UCLA ('07), Oklahoma State ('04) and Marquette ('03). Only Oklahoma State and UCLA, both No. 2 seeds, were higher seeds than Pitt.

“Last year, Wichita State did a really good job,” Pitt senior center Talib Zanna said. “We can make a run in the NCAA Tournament. It's a matter of coming together, playing good defense and playing the way we did at the beginning of the season.”

Dixon embraced Pitt's underdog role after watching the NCAA selection show but knows the Panthers must get past Colorado before they worry about the next game, likely against No. 1 Florida.

“We'll be focusing on Colorado here. That's the No. 1 thing,” Dixon said. “We've constantly talked to our team about what we could become.”

Dixon said at the start of the season that he thought Pitt could win the ACC. The Panthers' 16-1 start was sabotaged when sixth man Durand Johnson was lost to a knee injury, and the Panthers struggled over a stretch where they lost six of 10 games.

“Where we're going to be was always out in front of us,” Dixon said. “To me, that was the carrot that we had to focus on. Obviously, we had to readjust when Durand went down. But our goals didn't change.”

Now Pitt has to beat the odds. Since the tourney expanded in 1985, No. 9 seeds are 68-72 against No. 8 seeds and 7-62 against No. 1 seeds.

“Some people care about the seed. I think the seed doesn't matter,” Zanna said. “It's whoever has the heart to come out and dominate and play like they want it the most. That's who's going to win the tournament.”

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