Ron Cook: Pitt and Syracuse make surprising shift of power to ACC



Pitt will play Saturday afternoon at Syracuse with first place perhaps on the line. This would not be a big deal if it were a Big East Conference game. But it is an Atlantic Coast Conference battle. Don't look now, but the two interlopers are 3-0 in their new league and have embarrassed the competition.

This can't be playing well on Tobacco Road.

There was a lot of angst about how Pitt would fit into the ACC after years as a dominant Big East team. The styles of the two leagues are different, the argument went. Pitt's brute force won't work in the more finesse-oriented ACC. There will be a period of adjustment in which Pitt will struggle. It was picked to finish in the middle of the ACC pack.

Who says the experts know anything?

Pitt has beaten North Carolina State, Maryland and Wake Forest by 12, 20 and 15 points. Certainly, Syracuse hasn't had any adaptation problems. It is No. 2 in the rankings and beat North Carolina, 57-45, Saturday, to go to 16-0. Can you imagine that? A North Carolina team scoring 45 points? What must Dean Smith and Michael Jordan be thinking?

It's almost as if Pitt and Syracuse have stepped down in class in the ACC.

"It's early," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Saturday, moments after the Panthers defeated Wake Forest, 80-65, at Petersen Events Center.

The man is right. Pitt still has 15 ACC games to play, the next one Tuesday night at Georgia Tech. It won't be shocking if Pitt loses. Disappointing, maybe, but not shocking. Georgia Tech beat Notre Dame -- another former Big East team -- Saturday at home.

But that doesn't change two observations, early as they might be. Pitt has been better than expected. The ACC has been much worse.

North Carolina is 0-3 in the league and 10-6 overall after a loss at Syracuse. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams must not recognize the team he is putting on the floor. Duke is 1-2 after losing Saturday at Clemson and is in danger of falling out of the Top 20. It had been ranked in the Top 10 for 122 consecutive weeks since November 2007 before losing Jan. 4 at Notre Dame and dropping to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll. Miami, which won the ACC regular-season and tournament championships a season ago, is 1-2 with a home loss to Virginia Tech.

What would the ACC look like without Pitt and especially Syracuse?

I know these things are cyclical, but this is ridiculous.

The addition next season of yet another former Big East school -- defending national champion Louisville -- can't come soon enough for the once-proud ACC.

"I still think we're going to be a very strong league," Dixon said. "When I said we were moving from the best league to the best league, I didn't mean it necessarily at that moment. It's what the league can become. I didn't think it was going to happen overnight. The Big East wasn't great overnight."

Pitt has done its part. It could be ranked for the first time this season today when the new polls come out. It should be ranked.

Pitt hardly has missed 7-foot center Steven Adams, who left for the NBA as a first-round pick after just one season. It is a typical Pitt team in that it is physical. Big East or ACC, it doesn't matter. Pitt will play aggressive defense, rebound with a passion and go hard after every loose ball. It is an unselfish team. Players routinely pass up a good shot to get a teammate a better shot. What's fun to see is Pitt actually making its shots. It has even been good at the free-throw line.

"I was excited about this team," Dixon said. "We lost to Wichita State [in the NCAA tournament in the spring], which is a little better than an OK team. And we lost to Syracuse [by three points in the Big East tournament] in the Garden, which wasn't exactly a neutral court ...

"I thought we had some things you can't teach. Our passing ability ... The little experience we had was at the perimeter. You have to have guards with experience.

"We have great leadership. We've had great development. But we've only played three games. We're still a team in the making."

Dixon laughed at the suggestion Pitt is making it look easy in the ACC.

"It isn't easy. Things change game to game. But we're getting better. I think people see that. I think that's why they're excited about us."

The excitement will grow if Pitt beats Georgia Tech. Then, it will be on to Syracuse, where Pitt won six of the past eight Big East games. It figures to be must-see TV. A battle for supremacy. ACC supremacy.

How about that?

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


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