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Kovacevic: Seniors brought Pitt to Dance

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt senior Talib Zanna watches his teammates practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt senior Lamar Patterson works out Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt senior Talib Zanna watches his teammates practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. — “Senior leadership,” Cam Wright was saying Wednesday, “isn't always what people think.”

The kid sat up in his locker stall as I raised the subject, visibly perking up minutes before Pitt's first shootaround of this NCAA Tournament that will open Thursday for the Panthers against Colorado.

“Want to know what real senior leadership is?” Wright, the junior swingman, asked. “Here, have a seat.”

I sat.

“See these two guys?” Wright began, motioning to Lamar Patterson on one flank, Talib Zanna on the other. “They did this. They brought us here. Not everybody believed in our team. Not everybody believed in those two guys. Maybe just our best fans, like the Oakland Zoo.”

He clasped his hands, nodded and repeated: “But they did this.”

Yeah, they did.

No concept in collegiate athletics has become more cliched than that of senior leadership. It's cited even by teams dominated by underclassmen. But with this edition of Jamie Dixon's Panthers, it's actually possible the concept has been underplayed.

“When you talk about what you want to get from your seniors, that's what we've gotten from Lamar and Talib,” the coach said Thursday. “You saw them work hard. You saw them get better. You saw them graduate and work toward second degrees.”

He paused a moment.

“You know, you hear so much about college basketball and people who do different things. But here are two guys who did everything right, who are great representatives of our university.”

Rewind to the season's outset. Skepticism regarding Patterson and Zanna dominated the discussion. Not without cause, either.

Patterson finished his junior year looking exhausted, even exasperated in the highest-intensity games. His heart, his toughness were called into question. If he was about to blossom into some big-time, big-game scorer, it would come without precedent.

Zanna finished his junior year at forward and would be asked to take his slender 6-foot-9 frame to center and “lead the conference in rebounding,” per Dixon's stated expectation before the season. He'd also need to provide secondary scoring. That would come without precedent, too.

I won't lie. I was skeptical.

So, naturally, all Patterson went on to do was average 17.6 points and 4.3 assists through an inaugural ACC season in which he was second-team all-conference and easily could have been on the first. His opening two points Thursday will place him among Pitt's top 10 all-time scorers, and he's one of just three players with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists. He deserves to be remembered as one of the most versatile performers in school history.

And Zanna, on that same train, deserves to be remembered as one of the Panthers' most improved over the course of a career. He averaged 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds during the season, then went all alpha-beast in the ACC Tournament, including that 19-point, 21-rebound wrecking of North Carolina. His progression from a childhood in Nigeria to a raw, awkward freshman to what he is today is nothing shy of breathtaking.

Small wonder, then, that both players seemed to take some satisfaction from this mile marker alone.

“One of our goals as seniors was to be back in the NCAA Tournament, and we did it,” Patterson said. “That's not our only goal, but it was one of them. And we worked hard for it.”

“This is the tradition we're expected to uphold at Pitt,” Zanna said in English that's improved right along with his play. “This is what we learned from Nasir Robinson, Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker, and they learned it from guys before them. And here we are.”

The tradition Pitt won't want to uphold, of course, is that pesky one involving early tournament exits. It won't be easy. The Panthers should handle Colorado, which has been a mess since point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was lost in January, but No. 1 overall seed Florida looms next.

I'd tell you I'm skeptical again, but let's instead sit back down with Wright.

I asked him to cite an example of Pitt's senior leadership — a story, an anecdote — and he responded quicker than a crossover.

“North Carolina,” he said, revisiting the ACC Tournament game last week. “There was a media timeout, second half. The game was getting a little chippy. We weren't doing enough. I wasn't doing enough. And Talib …”

Wright opened his eyes wide and glared.

“That's what Talib did to me. Nothing but eye contact. Maybe five seconds.”

Not a word?

“Not one. But I kid you not, I knew exactly what he was telling me. He was telling me he wanted this. I mean, I always knew he was hungry. But this was … man, I can't wait to get out there and play for these guys. I can't. Let's go.”

And so he did, off to the court.

Tipoff against Colorado is 1:40 p.m.

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