Bob Smizik: Declining ACC makes Pitt entry easier

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The almost decade-long argument as to which conference -- the Big East or the ACC -- enjoyed basketball superiority over the other is being answered this season despite the drastic change in league alignments.

In the current AP top 25, based on 2012-13 conference affiliation, Big East teams would rank second (Syracuse), eighth (Villanova) and 12th (Louisville). The Atlantic Coast Conference, as constituted last year, would be at 16th (Duke). That’s right, the once-mighty ACC, the long-time aristocracy of college basketball, has one team from its 2012-13 membership in the top 25, and it’s a lowly 16th at that for super-elite Dookies.

What a perfect time for Pitt to have joined the ACC. The Panthers, Syracuse and Notre Dame left the Big East for the ACC 2013-14 seasons and later this year Louisville will follow. There’s a good chance that with this new transfusion of talent the ACC can rise again.

In the meantime, the Panthers are primed for a successful entry. Whereas some fans fretted -- and critics delighted -- in how Pitt would fare in the conference where basketball skills supposedly overrode athleticism, the answer in the first two games has been clear: Pitt belongs. There are no guarantees that Pitt will win a conference title this year or next or ever. But based on what we’ve seen thus far, the Panthers are competitive in their new league. They have the look of a team that belongs in the upper tier, not the middle or the bottom.

Pitt did not make the top 25 this week, despite its 14-1 record. But if the Panthers win their next game, Saturday at the Petersen Events Center against Wake Forest, no sure thing against the 11-3 Demon Deacons, they’ll almost certainly crash the top 25. They were 29th in the AP poll this week and 26th in the USA Today poll.

So how good are the Panthers?

The unrealistic among the fan base -- those who regard only a Final Four appearance as success -- will be disappointed. Pitt is not that good. Almost always Final Four teams have at least one and usually several players headed for the NBA. As is usually the case, there’s no one in Pitt’s current rotation who figures to earn a living in the NBA.

But the Panthers can achieve ACC success. They can make the NCAA tournament. They can win some games in the tournament. They can build toward getting better in the future. For most fans of the team, that’s enough.

Among the most positive aspects of league play thus far, which includes wins over North Carolina State and Maryland, has been the performance of center Talib Zanna. He moved over from power forward to replace Steven Adams, who left after one year for the NBA, and has thrived in his new role.

Zanna was strong in non-conference play last season but wilted in the Big East. He scored in double figures only three times in the team’s final 16 games. In the team’s final 11 games, he averaged 6.5 points. In his first two ACC games, he has scored 28 points on 8-of-15 shooting and grabbed 18 rebounds. He’s been a force.

But with freshman Michael Young at power forward, the Panthers inside game despite Zanna’s strong play thus far, does not figure to be big enough or good enough to enable the team to challenge for the league championship or go far in the NCAA tournament.

Pitt’s strength is on the wings where Lamar Patterson and Cam Wright operate. Patterson is extremely versatile and leads Pitt in scoring and assists. He is going to surprise a lot of people in the ACC.

But the future looks positive. Along with Young, two other freshmen, point guard Josh Newkirk and forward James Artis, are getting significant playing time. Sophomore James Robinson starts at point guard and sophomore Durand Johnson, the first player of the bench, is the team’s top 3-point shooter. Transfer Sheldon Jeter, who will be a sophomore when he becomes eligible next season, looks like the replacement for Patterson, who, along with Zanna, are the team's only seniors.

The fact the ACC has taken a step back from its one-time prominence has made Pitt’s adjustment period easier. The Panthers look like they will pick up in their new league where they left off in their old one: An almost annual contender and a tough team to beat.

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