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Kovacevic: Pitt primed for upset? Not exactly

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 8:48 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Pitt has no chance at an upset.

I mean, sure, even on a Saturday filled with all other manner of potential Mercer Madness in store, much of our bracket-wielding nation will tune in for the 12:15 p.m. tipoff of the Panthers taking on mighty Florida, the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed. It's a matchup that, given the pedigree of Billy Donovan and the favorites, figures to be the main event. It figures to be fun, too.

But an upset?

Nope, no way.

Not even if you ask the Panthers themselves.

“An upset?” Durand Johnson came back with an eyebrow raised when I did exactly that Friday at Amway Center. “There won't be any upset.”

See, that's what I …

“There won't be any upset if we win,” Johnson finished the thought. “Why would it be an upset?”

Oh.

Johnson, the injured sophomore forward, has been described here by Jamie Dixon as Pitt's “emotional leader,” so it's fair to assume he has the pulse.

For good measure, Brandin Knight, the fine former point guard and current assistant coach who might well represent the team's conscience, responded no differently.

“No upset,” Knight replied simply. “We know how others might see it, but not in our minds, no.”

All right, then.

So let's assume these guys aren't just hyper-inflating themselves with confidence.

Florida is 33-2, which might look like a misprint but isn't. The Gators haven't lost since Dec. 2, at that by one point at UConn. In the interim, they won all 18 games in the SEC for that conference's first perfect record, including four top-25 victories.

Individually, they're founded on four seniors and a sophomore. Patric Young, the 6-9 center, is a ball-eating beast and was SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Scottie Wilbekin, a multifaceted guard, was SEC Player of the Year. Michael Frazier, the lone sophomore at shooting guard, had six games with at least five 3-pointers.

Again, no misprints.

They have the cohesion of a group of seniors that has won a school-record 117 games, a collective toughness that Young described Friday as “like a junkyard dog,” the confidence that comes from hardly ever losing and, of course, one of college basketball's most accomplished coaches.

The Gators aren't just No. 1 in the tournament to Pitt's No. 9 in the region. They're No. 1 with a bullet.

And yet they aren't unbeatable, if only because no one is. Ask Mike Krzyzewski about that.

Moreover, if we're to take seriously that Pitt can compete with anyone in the country — and ask Jim Boeheim, Tony Bennett and Roy Williams about that — then why not Florida?

Dixon wasn't about to go down “no upset” road, but he did offer this about the Gators: “They're a very physical team, and they're older. But we're used to playing against those kinds of teams. We'll be ready for it. We've got to be smart. We've got to play with our feet and move, not get into foul trouble. But we've been good at that. We're well aware of their size and seeding and ranking and all those things. But we just played a No. 1 seed the other day in Virginia, and we feel we should have won that game.”

That was a 51-48 loss in the ACC semi, but do you see the pattern?

“We're in an interesting position, regardless of seeds,” Dixon added. “I think we feel we're playing our best basketball.”

They'll need all of it. But they also just might have it.

Talib Zanna will give up 10 pounds to Young, whom Zanna rather casually called “a dirty player.” But Zanna's been winning those duels all season. Mike Young will help trap the low post on Patric Young, as he did in rendering Colorado's Josh Scott invisible.

Lamar Patterson and Cameron Wright are steal machines capable of defending Wilbekin and Frazier on the perimeter and in transition. Patterson echoed the Panthers' phrase of the day in saying, “We'll just stick to our defensive principles.”

It'll be incumbent on James Robinson and all the rest to beat Florida's press. The press has bugged the Panthers at times — think late in that North Carolina game last week — but Robinson, in particular, has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country.

Line it all up, add in the momentum factor — including Florida looking lifeless in outlasting Albany, 67-55, here Thursday — and a Pitt victory doesn't seem all that inconceivable.

I asked Wright if, in watching video of the Gators, he had any gosh-wow, no-way-we-compete-with- those-guys sense, and he hesitated awhile before answering beautifully.

“Um, next question?”

There was a grin in there, I swear.

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