PITTSBURGH – The last time Pitt started its conference schedule with three consecutive wins was the 2010-11 season as a member of the Big East. The Panthers did it again by beating Wake Forest Saturday, 80-65, but this time it was in Pitt’s first season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The 2010-11 year saw the Panthers attain a No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they were upset by Butler in the third round. Butler advanced to the national championship game that season.
Three years later, Pitt (15-1, 3-0 ACC) has yet to crack the Top 25, but has started its season nearly perfect behind the leadership of seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna.
“I think we aren’t getting the respect we should,” Zanna said. “We’ve just got to keep playing hard and keep winning.”
Zanna recorded his fifth double-double of the season with 16 points and 12 rebounds. The center from Kaduna, Nigeria shot 5 of 8 from the field and blocked four shots while defending the bruising Devin Thomas.
“I think we, me and Lamar, need to step it up from now on,” Zanna said. “This is conference play, this is really important to us. It’s our last year.”
Patterson, who has drawn rave reviews from multiple opposing coaches, left a similar impression on Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik.
“I’m not saying he’s the elite player in the league, but he certainly is one of the elite players in the league,” Bzdelik said. “I think he’s very under-the-radar in terms of how good he is.”
“They have a great leader who can score in a variety of ways. He’s tough and gritty and experienced.”
Patterson’s game Saturday was above the proverbial radar as he led all scorers with 27 points, his sixth 20-point game of the season.
Patterson made 10 of 17 field goals and also recorded six assists and five rebounds.
Behind Patterson and Zanna, the Panthers are playing what Patterson calls “Pitt basketball.” Or, unselfish, hard-nosed basketball.
“A lot of the leadership comes from Lamar and Talib,” sophomore point guard James Robinson said. “They are our senior leaders. While both are scoring a lot, they are two of the most unselfish players.”
“Both of them are passers and that creates more open shots. The other teams know that they are capable passers.”
Patterson leads the team in assists at 4.5 per game, while head coach Jamie Dixon said Zanna made an adjustment to his game that’s created more space for Pitt’s offense to work effectively this season.
“It seems that teams are digging down whenever we go in the post to him,” Dixon said. “He needs to pass out of it first, and once they start staying tighter to their man, he can look to go attack the rim.”
Behind the example set by Zanna defending ball screens, Dixon said the Panthers were able to hold Wake Forest’s scoring threats on the perimeter to below-average games.
“Talib and the big guys especially did a good job of that,” Dixon said. “That really set the tone for us in the game.”
Just as the seniors set the tone, they have also done so for this entire season where the Panthers feature five returning players but also six new ones.
“We are just playing Pitt basketball right now,” Patterson said. “We want to grind teams out and see if they can last throughout the whole 40 minutes with us. So far we are going well but we have a lot of games left.”