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Kovacevic: Pitt can't defend dud vs. Duke

| Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 12:38 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Duke's Jabari Parker scores against Pitt during the first half Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at Petersen Events Center.

Call it a choke, a gag, a typical Pitt collapse against a top-caliber team.

Call it a portend of the punishment to come at tournament time.

There's going to be a whole lot of that, and I'm guessing a whole lot worse on this morning after the No. 18 Panthers' bumbling, bucket-trading 80-65 defeat at the hands of No. 17 Duke, one that doused a potentially explosive crowd of 12,944 Monday night at Petersen Events Center.

That kind of reaction is to be expected, actually. This was the great Mike Krzyzewski's first visit. It was the true indoctrination into the ACC. Above all, it was a chance for Pitt in general and Lamar Patterson in particular to show they were legit on a national stage, that they belonged, that they were welcoming Duke to their world and not the other way around.

And then … well, you saw it.

Pffffffffffffffffffffft …

“We didn't guard well enough,” Mike Young was saying shortly afterward.

He's right, of course. Duke's freshman sensation Jabari Parker was his matchup, and it was no match. Parker dominated Pitt like no opponent all winter, with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and he did his damage inside, outside, wherever he pleased. He looked every bit the part of a lottery pick in this year's NBA Draft. Maybe No. 1.

“They denied me the ball the whole game,” Patterson said.

He's right, too. Krzyzewski set up his defense, especially Duke's other hotshot NBA prospect Rodney Hood, to “keep Patterson from sticking daggers in us,” to quote Coach K. And it worked. Patterson wound up with 14 points, and his tank was on ‘E' in the waning minutes.

“We didn't really execute at all defensively in the second half,” James Robinson said.

He's righter than right. For reasons no one could really explain, Pitt emerged from the intermission with a 34-32 deficit and decided to go all old-school Loyola Marymount on everyone, leaving Duke with shots so wide open that, in all candor, it's a wonder the Blue Devils didn't convert field goals even better than 55.2 percent.

Dick Groat, the one-time Duke legend honored in a wonderful pregame ceremony by both teams, could have shot 55.2 percent with those looks. And I mean now, at age 83.

Small wonder Dixon cringed at any media question afterward that didn't have to do with Pitt's defense.

“You can talk about shots or offense, but we weren't getting stops,” Dixon said once if he said it 100 times. “That's on me. We practiced these plays, very specific plays that we just didn't execute. Maybe I didn't stress that enough. I blame myself. We talked a lot about winning on the glass, but we also talked about how they could shoot 3s and how we needed to defend the dribble. Maybe I should have talked more about that.”

Getting the idea Pitt's next few practices and film-room sessions might be a bit rough?

“Maybe we think we can win by playing defense that way; I don't know,” Dixon would say later in an atypically sardonic tone. “Well, we can't.”

No, they can't. Anyone watching this team all season has seen that. Anytime the Panthers find trouble, they fall back to a foundation of defense and rebounding.

In this one …

“Wide open,” Young said. “We left their guys wide open.”

Duke deserves credit, as Dixon was also careful to give. Parker and Hood are wonderful talents. Andre Dawkins dropped six 3-pointers among his 20 points, four in a lights-out second half. Amile Jefferson added 14 points. At times, especially in the second half, the Blue Devils looked outright unstoppable.

But here's my primary takeaway from all of this: How do we know if no one was in position to stop them?

Was Duke really that great or Pitt really that lost?

Nothing is more common than college coaches complimenting the other excessively, as we witnessed over the weekend when Maryland's Mark Turgeon nearly likened Pitt to the Magic-Kareem-Worthy Lakers with that “one of the best teams I've ever coached against” remark.

Even in that context, though, I found this platitude from Krzyzewski telling: “We played very well. Because they're a good team. If we played them again, we might not beat them.”

Reading between the lines, I'd say he was trying to find a diplomatic way to say Pitt was nowhere near peak form.

And you know what?

He's as right as all those Pitt guys I listed above.

It might well end up that the Panthers will choke, gag and all that other stuff for which there is far too much precedent over the past decade. But I have a tough time envisioning it happening as the result of the mind-numbingly irresponsible defense we witnessed Monday.

Dixon called his defense “a work in progress.”

Incompetent can't be fixed. Irresponsible can.

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