Ron Cook: Panthers are ACC favorites ... seriously


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Syracuse is 18-0 and has been ranked No. 2 in America since Dec. 9, but it is not the favorite to win the ACC championship.

Pitt is.

I'm serious.

That is not a giddy overreaction to Pitt's ridiculously easy 76-43 win against Clemson Tuesday night at Petersen Events Center. It is merely a clear-thinking assessment of the way Pitt is playing, its 5-1 league record, the quality of the other ACC teams and the remaining schedule.

All signs point to Pitt.

It is early, sure. Pitt has played just six conference games, one-third of its league schedule. A lot of bad things can happen between now and the start of the ACC tournament March 12. Pitt already has lost sixth man Durand Johnson to a season-ending knee injury. Another injury could be crushing.

But why think negatively?

Where is the joy in that?

It is much more fun to think about how Pitt can win the ACC in its first season in the conference. It's not a stretch to suggest it should be in first place now instead of Syracuse. It lost at Syracuse, 59-54, Saturday in a game that left the players and coaching staff angry because they felt they should have won.

"More angry than disappointed," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "You're never sure how it's going to go in the next game because it was such a tough, emotional loss. You always wonder if there will be a carryover or a hangover. But I kind of felt we would play well. We practiced Sunday and everyone came out early. We practiced Monday and everyone came out way early ...

"But I didn't expect this."

Clemson, which came in with a 4-1 conference record, never had a chance. Pitt's 33-point margin of victory was the second-biggest in a league game in the Dixon era. It didn't quit match the 93-55 win against DePaul in a Big East Conference game a year ago, but who's complaining?

So much for that Clemson defense, which had been the best in the ACC, allowing opponents to score an average of 53.5 points and shoot 36.2 percent. Pitt scored at will and shot 56.3 percent. Pitt continued to be an unselfish team, getting 24 assists on 27 baskets. That's why it can be so difficult to stop at times.

"We've been pretty darn good offensively all year, so we must be doing something right," Dixon said. "We were always on the attack tonight, in transition or in our half-court offense. We always had something going to the basket."

Point guard James Robinson was in the middle of much of it. He had a wonderful game, hitting 2 of 3 3-point shots and finishing with eight assists and no turnovers. Big man Talib Zanna showed again he is an offensive force by making 9 of 10 shots and scoring 22 points.

"He's becoming more patient with his offense," Dixon said of Zanna. "He's letting things come to him and his understanding of the game is better. When you have that, it's going to lead to more opportunities."

Pitt's defense was just as good, holding Clemson to 32 percent shooting. K.J. McDaniels came in averaging 16.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game but needed 11 shots to get 11 points. Give much of the credit to Lamar Patterson for strong defense. McDaniels also had just four rebounds, none offensively. As usual, Pitt had a rebounding edge, 33-28.

Pitt even got back to making its free throws -- 14 of 18 -- after a miserable game at the line at Syracuse.

"It's rare," Dixon said of such a one-sided conference game. "You don't count on it. I certainly didn't. Clemson is a good team. I watched them beat Duke by 13. We'll see them again at their place."

Pitt plays at Clemson March 8 in its final ACC regular-season game. Of Pitt's six remaining conference road games, that's the only one against a team with a winning record in the league. Good luck to Clemson trying to make up that 33-point gap.

Pitt's toughest remaining games are at home, where it is 192-22 with 14 consecutive wins. Duke (3-2 in the ACC) is here Monday night in the game everyone has wanted to see since news broke that Pitt was switching conferences. Virginia (5-1) comes in on Super Bowl Sunday. The rematch with Syracuse is Feb. 12 and should be much-anticipated. Florida State (4-2) plays here Feb. 23.

I don't see any of 'em winning at Petersen Events Center.

The schedule clearly favors Pitt. Syracuse also has to play at Duke and at Virginia. Duke has to play a second game against Syracuse at Syracuse. Virginia has that game at Pitt.

The ACC, clearly in a down year, is there for Pitt to take.

Not that Dixon is looking that far ahead. He said his only concern is the game Saturday night at Maryland. But he did concede, "We're getting better. I think people can see that. What excites me is the team we can become."

Not just a really good team.

An ACC championship team.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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