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Kovacevic: Who's to say Pitt has peaked?

| Thursday, March 20, 2014, 8:33 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
(From left) Pitt's Jamel Artis, James Robinson, Cameron Wright, Michael Young and Durand Johnson celebrate as time winds down in their NCAA Tournament second-round game against Colorado Thursday, March 20, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's James Robinson steals the ball from Colorado's Askia Booker during the first half of their NCAA Tournament second-round game Thursday, March 20, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. — This was halftime. And the kitchen-sized locker room inside Amway Center, which had to feel every bit as inviting as the scotch-taped slip of paper bearing “Pittsburgh” on its door, had fallen stone silent. Oh, there might have been the odd shuffling of size-15s, given that players were crammed in knee to knee. But otherwise, as James Robinson would recall later, “For two minutes, not one word.”

Yeah, this was halftime of Pitt's 77-48 absolute annihilation of Colorado in the NCAA Tournament opener Thursday. And let it now be known that those of us watching weren't the only ones left speechless at that moment.

I mean, wow.

It wasn't just that the Panthers were up by 28. They'd recorded 13 assists to Colorado's zero. They'd forced 10 turnovers to Colorado's one. They'd converted more field goals than Colorado attempted. It was founded on what Talib Zanna called “hard defense,” fueled by what Mike Young called “total physicality on the boards,” and finished off with passing that Colorado coach Tad Boyle called “the most unselfish plays you'll see from any team.”

It was as close to perfect as it gets for Pitt, especially in light of all the luggage Jamie Dixon's teams take into tournament time each spring.

So, why the silence at intermission?

Wait, there's more.

“Those couple minutes go by,” Robinson continued. “And Durand gets up.”

Or as Cam Wright more colorfully put it, “Durand got all up in our faces.”

Durand Johnson, of course, is the one player in sweats these days. Blew out his knee in January, leaving not only a hole in the lineup but also potentially in the team's heart. Except that he never left. He's around constantly, home and road, practices and games.

“It's not over!” Johnson shouted to break the silence, according to those inside. “We've got 20 minutes! It's not over! It's not over!”

The seniors, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, spoke next. Then Dixon. All had the same message: “The foot's on the gas, man,” said Brandin Knight, the team's assistant coach as well as its conscience. “You don't take your foot off when you're going like we are.”

They didn't, and Young exemplified that best. He's enduring a “pretty much constant” pain from a small fracture in his back, especially late in games. But even when he landed hard on his back at midcourt in the second half, he bounced right back up to run both ends of the court in search of rebounds.

“That's the only way,” Young would say, “that we know how to play.”

Sensing anything different here?

I'm not about to predict a Pitt victory in its next game, Saturday against the No. 1 overall seed. That's a fool's errand. The fact remains that the Panthers have beaten one top-25 team all season — North Carolina in the ACC Tournament last week — and that the Gators are 33-2, haven't lost in four months and will have a huge home-state advantage in the crowd, as they did Thursday night in beating Albany, 67-55.

But I'll also state what should be equally obvious: Pitt is playing its best basketball with this group. They're peaking now, but it doesn't mean they're done. For sure, it wouldn't be easy to find any team playing with a better trajectory of confidence and cohesion.

“Our confidence right now is through the roof,” Wright said. “That's how we feel right now. We don't feel like there's a team in the country we can't beat.”

He might be right. I'm guessing Jim Boeheim and Tony Bennett wouldn't argue. Or Billy Donovan, for that matter.

Credit this terrific group of student-athletes for picking up the program to where beating No. 1 can be seen as realistic, if not necessarily expected.

But credit the coach, too.

This is when Dixon's teams are supposed to crumble, remember?

This is when the weak non-conference schedule, the failure to produce an elite scorer, the stubborn strategy, all that stuff's supposed to undo everything else he achieves annually.

Does one W against a clearly overmatched Colorado team change that?

Of course not. But it could be part of a broader bucking of the trend and, more immediately, it could lead to something truly spectacular Saturday.

Long as that foot stays on the gas.

“That's why I spoke up,” Johnson explained. “I wanted them to know that one great half wasn't going to count for anything. I wanted them to know we're moving on to bigger and better things. And I'm talkin' Florida. Don't stop.”

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