Ron Cook: New league, same home, same result for Panthers



The conference doesn't matter. Most nights, the opponent doesn't matter. Pitt wins its men's basketball games at Petersen Events Center at a silly-good rate. You almost can count on it. No team in town provides a more predictable result.

Monday night felt like any other night at Pitt, at least after you hustled from the bitter cold into the warmth of the beautiful on-campus arena. The game against Maryland was Pitt's first home game in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it was hard to tell it from the many Big East Conference games the program has played during the Jamie Dixon era. Pitt, largely, used the same style.

In a word:

Successful.

Pitt played solid defense, shot well all game and turned up the rebounding intensity in the second half to blow out Maryland, 79-59. Afterward, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said the Panthers were just what he and the other ACC coaches expected when they heard Pitt was joining their league. There will be no easy nights at Petersen Events Center, where Pitt is 190-22.

"I don't know about that," Dixon said. "We've got one win, that's all I know. That's a start."

Actually, Pitt has two ACC wins, taking down North Carolina State Saturday on the road in its opener. It is the only 2-0 team in its new conference.

"It's terrific," Dixon said of the ACC. "So far, I like it after two games."

The transition for Pitt has been a lot easier than when it left the Eastern Eight Conference to join the Big East in 1982. It lost its first four league games that season and finished 6-10. It didn't have a winning record in the conference until 1986-87.

The wait for success shouldn't be nearly so long in the ACC.

Pitt, as always, plays a physical defense. It held Maryland to 35.7 percent shooting and to more than 15 points below its season average. It did a nice job against top scorer, Dez Wells, who, with 5 points, scored 10 below his average.

"I think we've been playing good defense for about two weeks now," Dixon said. "I thought we played good defense in the [loss to Cincinnati], but, since then, we've gotten better at it. Guys are taking pride in it."

Pitt's typically effective rebounding was an issue for Dixon for the second consecutive game. North Carolina State outrebounded the Panthers, 35-29. Maryland had a 19-13 edge in the first half when Pitt led, 36-30.

"I don't know how many games we would have won in the Big East losing the rebounding battle like that," Dixon said. "We ended up tying them, but we've still got to get that addressed. Rebounding and steals are what lead to transition baskets. Our guys know that. They will see that when we rebounded the ball better in the second half is when the score started to separate."

The big difference for this Pitt team is its ability to shoot and score, especially with the 3-point shot. It started the season strong and hit a shooting lull that continued into the first half of the North Carolina State game when it made just 1 of its first 10 shots and fell behind, 17-2. But it made 17 of 27 shots in the second half that game and followed that by shooting 52.7 percent against Maryland. Reserve Durand Johnson led the way by making 6 of 8 shots, including 3 of 4 3s.

"My teammates kind of look at me to be the energy man," Johnson said.

The key is Johnson's hard work in practice, Dixon said. The kid didn't get down after playing just eight minutes at North Carolina State.

"When you work hard, you get better," Dixon said.

Pitt did a nice job protecting the ball in its ACC games, committing 11 turnovers against North Carolina State and just seven against Maryland. It's no wonder it blew out two more opponents. Eleven of its 14 wins have been by at least 17 points.

"We felt coming in we had a better shooting team than we've had in the past," Dixon said. "I think our offensive improvement starts with our shot selection. We're getting better."

Count Turgeon among those who were impressed.

"Pitt is good. They are really good. They are deep. They play hard. They guard you. It's a different guy every night. They are terrific. I can't see a lot of teams coming here and beating them in this building."

That makes two of us.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


First Published January 7, 2014 12:58 AM

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