Bob Smizik: ACC easy for Panthers -- thus far

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Tobacco Road vs. the Rust Belt was expected to be a humbling experience for the newcomers from the North. After all, they were about to engage college basketball royalty -- the high and mighty Atlantic Coast Conference -- after decades of toiling among the masses.

Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame -- Big East refugees -- were expected to bow and curtsy while losing with some regularity in the exalted ACC. It would be a learning experience for the Northerners. They’d have to be taught how to play "real" basketball in the ACC.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Hasn’t been close to what so many expected. After about one-third of the league season, the results are reminiscent of the War of Secession, which is to say the North is winning.

Two of the three ranked teams in the new ACC are former Big East members Syracuse and Pitt. The Orangemen are second in the country, 18-0 overall and 5-0 in league play. The 20th-ranked Panthers are 16-2 and 5-1, with their only league loss to Syracuse. Notre Dame, the other Big East newcomer, is having a more difficult first year. The Irish are 2-4 in league play but even they have struck a dagger at the myth of ACC supremacy. One of the Notre Dame wins is over Duke, the holiest of the ACC holy.

It’s not just the former Big East teams that are humbling the ACC. So is the rest of the country. North Carolina, a long-time nationally elite program, has fallen upon hard times. The Tar Heels, who once formed, with Duke, the upper crust of the ACC, are 11-7, 1-4 and their losses have been to the likes of Belmont, UAB and, most recently, to Virginia by 15.

The ACC is not only no longer considered the best conference in the country, it’s not even in the discussion. Without Syracuse and Pitt, it would be a bit of a joke with one ranked team -- Duke, No. 18 -- by virtue of reputation -- with four losses.

What a season it has been for Pitt basketball. The Panthers were expected to tiptoe into the ACC and be a middle-of-the-pack team. Instead, they have bashed one long-time ACC opponent after another. Most recently, it absolutely humbled Clemson, 76-43, at the Petersen Events Center. Clemson might not seem like much, but it owns a 13-point win over Duke.

This is a typical Pitt team -- short on NBA talent and players who can get their own shot. But long on heart, dedication and a rigid belief that defense and rebounding conquer all. Not that there hasn’t been a bit of an upshoot in offense. This Pitt team is averaging 76 points a game, uncommonly high for the Panthers.

A few, caught up in the giddiness of the season, have suggested this is coach Jamie Dixon’s best Pitt team. Like the DeJuan Blair, Sam Young 2009 Panthers, who were within a second of the Final Four, have been erased from memory banks.

This team has no DeJuan Blair, although center Talib Zanna is averaging 13.4 points a game, 20th in the league, and 7.9 rebounds, which is third.

But it does have a Sam Young. In fact, Lamar Patterson, by most accounts, can go Young one better. Patterson is a small forward who is fifth in the ACC in scoring (17.4 points) and assists (4.6) and third in 3-point shooting, an excellent 44 percent, and third in overall shooting. He is the complete player and among the early leaders to be ACC player-of-the-year.

Sophomore point guard James Robinson doesn’t just lead the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio, he leads the nation -- and by a wide margin, 5.21 to 4.41. Cam Wright is not the prototypical two guard because he lacks a strong outside shot. But he can score, 10.8 points a game, and he’s third in the conference in steals.

It’s a nice collection of talent which, typical for Pitt, forms an even better team. But it’s still early in the season and there are no guarantees. There are multiple difficult tests ahead -- beginning Saturday at Maryland and Monday at home against Duke. But thus far this has been one first-year, easier-than-expected, fun ride for the Panthers.


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