Successful early run just the beginning for talented Panthers


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Much like death and taxes, a successful non-conference schedule has grown to become something of a certainty for the Pitt men's basketball team under coach Jamie Dixon.

Since 2001, dating to former coach Ben Howland's tenure, the Panthers have won at least 10 non-conference games, a testament to a program that has grown to be one of college basketball's most consistent performers over the past decade.

Yet again, Pitt made sure to polish off a strong run in the first leg of the season, shaking off a slow start with a 59-43 victory Sunday against Kennesaw State at Petersen Events Center.

While a victory against an Owls team that entered the contest on a nine-game losing streak was expected by many, the game was a final tuneup for a team that has impressed thus far, with the challenge and depth of the Big East Conference awaiting it.

"We're starting over 0-0 is what I told our guys and we're going forward here now," said Dixon, who picked up his 250th career win. "Everybody in our conference has a pretty good record at this point. We have to go into conference play and be ready for that."

Before the team's thoughts shifted fully to Big East play, starting with a Dec. 31 game against undefeated No. 11 Cincinnati, there was the matter of Kennesaw State, which jumped to a 9-4 lead four minutes into the game before Dixon abruptly called a timeout.

From that point, the Panthers (12-1) outscored the Owls (1-11) by a 26-7 margin to close out the first half, limiting Kennesaw State to just three points in the final 11:01 of the first half. The 16 points Pitt allowed were tied for the ninth fewest in a half in program history.

The Owls played close for the rest of the game, getting outscored by just two points in the game's final 20 minutes, but they would get no closer than 10 after halftime.

Though the Panthers picked up the victory, Dixon still sees room for improvement.

"We never got in a rhythm here, as obviously the score [indicates]," he said. "They did a good job of being real patient -- I think they held the ball and reversed the ball and were real patient offensively. It seemed like we had some opportunities to finish some baskets that we didn't finish."

Not even a year removed from a subpar 5-13 conference record that caused them to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001, the Panthers face a tall task with a Big East schedule that sports the conference's usual depth of talented teams.

The Big East's other 15 teams are a combined 142-31, with no team sporting a losing record. The league also features five ranked teams (including two in the top five), with a group of three teams (Pitt included) just outside of the top 25.

Kennesaw State coach Lewis Preston believes the Panthers are ready for the challenges in the coming months.

"I told Jamie that I liked this group, I told [director of basketball operations] Brian Regan, who I've known for a long time, that it looks like these guys like playing for each other, they like being around each other," Preston said. "When you have that type of chemistry, it's usually a great sign of success."

Forward Talib Zanna continued to impress in what has become a breakout junior season, scoring a team-high 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Guard James Robinson added eight points, with forward J.J. Moore and center Steven Adams each pitching in seven points.

A total of 10 Pitt players saw time on the court, with each one scoring at least three points. If the performance Sunday is any indication, the team might have the kind of depth that will give them an advantage going into conference play.

"The coaches are all confident in all of us and that just helps us out even more," guard Cameron Wright said. "Every one of us has someone to come in and give them a breather, and we're all confident in each other. Going into Big East play, a lot of teams don't play that many guys, so it kind of gives us an edge."

Still, while a 12-1 mark in non-conference play is nothing at which to scoff, Pitt's true challenge is what lies ahead. Even for a team that has already accomplished a series of tasks and shown signs of promise, it is far from a finished product, which, to Dixon, is just how it should be.

"I think anybody that thinks they're ready in December or January is not going to be the team they want to be in February or March," he said.

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer. First Published December 24, 2012 5:00 AM


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