Panthers a mixed bag in first ACC season

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PITTSBURGH – Jamie Dixon spent an hour watching top-seeded Florida do to Pittsburgh what the Panthers have done to opponents for years when the coach came to a sobering conclusion.


“Generally your older guys are your best defenders,” Dixon said. “We hope that we can get old again and become a better defensive team.”


The Panthers, who lost 61-45 to the Gators Saturday, played defense in spurts during a roller coaster first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where they finished fifth with an overall record of 26-10.


Senior center Talib Zanna, technically playing out of position, became one of the league’s best big men. Senior forward Lamar Patterson overcame the tentativeness that held him back throughout his career to develop into the engine that powered an offense that didn’t exactly resemble the stodgy, grind-it-out style that long served as the program’s hallmark.


“Offensively, we’ve been pretty good,” Dixon said. “Our offense has been far ahead of our defense this year.”


Pitt shared the ball as well as anyone in the league. The Panthers were second in the ACC in assists per game, trailing only North Carolina. Junior Cameron Wright was a revelation at times as he became the slasher the team needed to split defenses. Freshmen power forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis provided occasional brawn to lend Zanna a hand in the paint.


The extended playing time for so many young players – only four of Pitt’s 10 rotation players were upperclassmen – should pay dividends next season when 6-foot-11 center Shaquille Doorson leads a talented (and big) signing class.


Even with Louisville cramming into the already crowded ACC next season, the Panthers expect to be back in the mix near the top of the league.


Yet, for the group that walked out of the locker room at the Amway Center Saturday afternoon, there’s a sense of what might have been too.


Pitt’s season could be divided into two halves, the half with sophomore forward Durand Johnson and the half without. The Panthers were on their way to improving to 15-1 when Johnson tore the ACL in his knee late in a victory over Wake Forest. Pitt was just 11-9 without their best 3-point shooter and emotional spark plug.


Replacing Johnson’s presence off the bench was a problem at times. Outside of freshman guard Josh Newkirk, the Panthers had little depth to turn to in the backcourt if one of the starters ran into foul trouble.


There were also a series of stinging losses, some of them inexplicable. While Pitt wasn’t exactly playing like a No. 9 seed after making it to the ACC tournament semifinals, they gave the selection committee plenty of ammunition to drop them lower in the bracket.


The nonconference schedule included an ugly 44-43 loss to Cincinnati, one of the few quality opponents the Panthers faced before ACC play started. A potential upset of unbeaten and No. 1 Syracuse Feb. 12 ended on a 35-foot jumper at the horn by Tyler Ennis of the Orange. They gave up 41 points to T.J. Warren of N.C. State in a 74-67 defeat in the home finale, as the aura that has shrouded the Petersen Events Center from the moment it opened in 2003 was gone.


Stunningly, Pitt was better on the road (7-2) than it was at home (4-5) in conference play, an issue Dixon stressed the team needed to address as it heads into 2014-15.


And while Dixon will likely continue to loosen the reins on offense – particularly when Johnson returns – the Panthers know their identity remains closely associated with the suffocating style that made them a power in the Big East for a decade.


It’s a style they’ll need to find again if they want to get beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, a place they haven’t been in five years and counting.


Dixon was talking about the running 3-pointer Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin hit just before the half but he might as well as have been talking about an enigmatic season as a whole.


“I’m going to take full responsibility for it, but I think we all know what happened, and it’s on me,” he said. “If we don’t get it done, we don’t get it done, and that’s where it’s at. Again, we didn’t get it done.”


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