Wait nearly over; ACC play on Panthers' horizon

PITT BASKETBALL

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The Pitt Panthers film session Thursday ran about 45 minutes longer than usual, which is somewhat strange given they are preparing to play their first conference game and an opponent that should be a familiar one.

But nothing could be further from the truth for the Panthers as the reality of this season sets in, their first as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"[We are] excited, it has been talked about and going on and on and now we need to get ready for the real thing," Dixon said. "Finally the talk is over and the time is here to come and play [in the ACC]."

Talib Zanna added: "We are really excited about this, it is a new conference and a new beginning and we have to go out and work on what we have prepared for the whole summer. We have a lot of veterans and we are really excited for this.

"There are a lot of good teams with a lot of history behind their names like Duke and North Carolina, but we can't think about that. We just have to go play the way we play and take the Big East game into the ACC."

Pitt (12-1) will open Saturday at North Carolina State (10-3) and while the two teams have faced each other 10 times in the past, they haven't played since 1991, well before the Jamie Dixon era began.

Dixon said that it will be fun to prepare for teams that he hasn't seen a lot of or prepared for much. But he does at least have some idea what the Wolfpack will do because the Panthers have faced Alabama when it was coached by current North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried.

"We played coach Gottfried's teams when he was at Alabama and he is still using a lot of those UCLA sets," Dixon said. "So we won't be surprised by what he is using but we need to keep them in front of us."

There is a prevailing thought that the adjustment to the ACC might be tougher than it appears because the contrasting style of play between the two leagues.

The Big East is considered a more physical league where many of the teams are built on tough defense and rebounding. Games at times were extremely intense but not always particularly fun to watch.

Pitt became one of the best teams in the Big East mostly because it annually was one of the toughest and most physical teams. But the ACC has traditionally been a more finesse-oriented league.

That might be true but Dixon said the reality is both leagues have changed over the years as the game has changed. The ACC has undergone a bit of a transition because there are so many coaches in their first or second year with their current school.

He said he doesn't buy into the theories that the Panthers will have to alter their style dramatically to survive in the ACC because he said they have adapted every year to their personnel changes and also week to week based on their opponents.

"We change every year according to our talents and our strengths," Dixon said. "So we are always evolving, always changing and we have been a different team every year since I have been here, 15 years now. The game has changed with officials and how they are calling things, so you are constantly evolving and changing as the game does.

"And again, the ACC isn't what it once was. There are different teams in there, there are different coaches in there and all these things are factors. We have changed because of the way officials have called games and would have regardless of what conference we were in.

"You always have to evolve and you always have to adapt to things, and we have."

Zanna said that there likely will be a difference in some of the games but he, like Dixon, doesn't buy into the theory that the Panthers will necessarily have to adjust what they do.

"We have big men who can run the floor and guards who can push the ball," Zanna said. "Everybody runs the floor well. But we just have to go there and grind, and it may come down to who plays more physical and it may still come down to who plays defense.

"But I think we are built for the ACC. Dixon tells the guards they have to push the ball more, and we have guys who do a good job in running the floor as well.

"We will miss some of those schools [such as Connecticut and Georgetown]. This is a new conference for us, it will be a new test have to live up to the task."

The Panthers will follow their first ACC game Saturday with their first ACC home game Monday when they play host to Maryland (9-5, 1-0).

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NOTE -- The Panthers got a commitment from 6-foot-4 guard Mustapha Heron, but fans will have to wait to see him play because he is only a sophomore (Class of 2016) at Sacred Heart in Waterbury, Conn. He currently is ranked as the No. 13 player in the Class of 2016. He also had an offer from Vanderbilt.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.


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