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Kovacevic: For Panthers, what's new is old

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:18 p.m.
Pitt's Talib Zanna (left) and James Robinson celebrate toward the end of their game against N.C. State on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C.
Pitt's Talib Zanna drives to the basket as N.C. State's Lennard Freeman (10) draws a foul during the second half Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C.

RALEIGH, N.C. — From the moment Pitt officially was pronounced a member of the ACC in the fall of 2011, the point's been pounded again and again: How will Jamie Dixon's bull-in-a-china-shop basketball style adjust to the new conference's flash, its finesse, its fast break?

Some predicted Dixon would have to recruit differently.

Some urged a new emphasis on slick shooters or slashing types.

Some — no, check that, everyone, myself included — fretted that the lame out-of-conference schedule wouldn't properly prepare the Panthers for ACC play.

And you know, maybe all that will play out. Maybe Dixon will have to stop scheduling Cal Poly and the like. Maybe he'll have to retool or reinvent to keep up with the Krzyzewskis.

But man, he sure didn't seem inclined toward anything of the sort in the university's inaugural ACC game, did he?

“Now that was Pitt basketball,” Talib Zanna was saying Saturday through an ear-to-ear grin minutes after the Panthers doggedly flipped an early 15-point deficit into a 74-62 demolition of N.C. State at PNC Arena. “I've been telling you all along; it's not how we adjust to the conference. Maybe they adjust to us.”

If that sounds like big talk, so be it.

Zanna did tell me exactly that a couple of days earlier at the Pete, and he backed his words with 15 points, nine rebounds and a handful of bruises delivered to the Wolfpack's two far larger centers. Good for him.

Good for fellow senior Lamar Patterson, too. Like Zanna, he's been criticized as a player who'll perform in all but the biggest games. Not in this game, though — he had a game-high 22 points and controlled the floor in the second half — and not at all this season. He's been dynamite. He's risen above.

And yet, it's the collective, which now stands at 13-1 with a healthy sigh of satisfaction added here, that made the loudest statement.

You saw the start. The Panthers fell behind, 19-4, and took terrible jumpers and tossed the ball into the seats and parted the Red Sea to clear space for N.C. State's turbo-charged forward, T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack led by eight at the half, had a rebounding edge of 10, and both those figures should have been more lopsided.

As Dixon put it, “We couldn't have played worse.”

The coach, as is his wont, went with what works: He lashed into Zanna and Patterson by the Panthers' bench, making them eminently aware that it would have to be them — and not the freshmen who'd oddly been the only ones free of deer-in-the-headlights looks — carrying the day. Dixon also switched right back to his standard man-to-man defense after having held his nose to apply the zone as an early tourniquet. Offensively, he ordered his shooters to knock off the jumpers and start driving to the hoop.

He wanted Pitt basketball.

“We really haven't been a great shooting team,” Dixon said. “This way, we'd get to the basket, get some fouls, put some pressure on.”

The players, too, discussed returning to a foundation of rebounding and defense. If N.C. State was going to run away, they'd have to run through the Panthers, not around them.

“We want teams to play the way we want to play,” Patterson said.

All of it worked, right down to Cam Wright tormenting Warren. The latter still wound up with his standard 23 points, but most came early, and he needed 22 shots to get them.

“I let my team down in the first half because I wasn't tough enough on him,” Wright said. “That's not how we play. We play tough.”

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, who sounded exasperated afterward by his 10-4 team “really coming up empty” in the second half, also acknowledged the obvious about the opponent: “Give Pitt credit. They were the tougher team.”

Will it be enough going forward?

Eh, not there yet. Maryland comes into the Pete on Monday, and the Terps are 10-5, 2-0 in the ACC. That's another decent test. But the big shots, No. 2 Syracuse and No. 7 Duke, come later in the month, and we'll know a ton more by then. Patterson will need more help with the scoring. Zanna will need a breather from the beatings he'll take in the paint. James Robinson will have to find the hoop more than a couple of times a night. Wright needs to be a lot smarter with the ball. The freshmen will have to continue to improve.

But, as Dixon was telling me while walking past the N.C. State locker room, “People talk about that team in there being young, and they are.”

The Wolfpack started two freshmen and had another playing a lot.

“But we're as young as anyone in the country, and there's room for us to grow. We're not a finished product by any means.”

No, but it would appear they're feeling far better about themselves after this successful ACC debut that doubly served as a reassurance of who they are.

Loved this line from Wright: “Know what I think? We're excited to be here in the ACC. But the ACC should be excited to have us.”

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