Either Jamie Dixon got a lot smarter in the past 48 hours or his players are performing a lot better. My bet is on the latter.
The impossible might not be on the doorstep of the Pitt basketball team but it’s in the neighborhood. After two highly impressive wins in the ACC tournament, the Panthers play sixth-ranked Virginia, the regular-season champion, in a semi-final game this afternoon at 1. If they win, they advance to the final against the winner of Duke-North Carolina State. A championship is unlikely but not out of the question.
Pitt is playing better than it has all season. Forget the 16-1 start, accomplished mostly against a hand-picked array of tomato cans. The Panthers walloped Wake Forest, which beat Duke 10 days ago, 84-55 on Thursday and then jumped all over No. 15 North Carolina yesterday, leading by as many as 19 points in the second half, before staggering to a 80-75 win.
Center Talib Zanna has been otherworldly -- 19 points and 21 rebounds against North Carolina -- and he’s getting support from James Robinson, 19 points, four steals, and, as always, Lamar Patterson, 12 points.
Pitt lost to Virginia, 48-45, Feb. 2 at the Petersen Events Center. That narrow margin -- a 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds remaining, could easily be overcome by the improved play of Zanna, who had two points and three rebounds against the Cavaliers.
But we’re getting way, way ahead of ourselves. The most important news of this tournament was the win over Wake Forest. That win put Pitt into the NCAA tournament. That’s the big prize. All the Panthers are doing in the ACC tournament is playing for prestige and seeding.
Anyone who places the ACC tournament anywhere close to the NCAA tournament just doesn’t get it. These postseason conference tournaments are made-for-television events. The NCAA tournament is for the national championship. Pitt has won multiple postseason conference tournaments. It is best known -- by far -- for its failures in the NCAA tournament.
That doesn’t mean the Panthers don’t want to take this run as far as it can go. With these two wins, they have partially softened their second-half collapse, which included one stretch of six losses in 10 games.
But win or lose this afternoon, the Panthers have gained a large dose of confidence and perhaps gathered a degree of momentum. They’ll need all of that because the game today and the possible one tomorrow pale next to the one they’ll play next Thursday or Friday in the NCAA tournament.