ATLANTA — As the Pittsburgh Panthers’ bus idled on a side street outside of McCamish Pavilion Tuesday night, the team’s tough-guy image had mellowed into laughs among players and their visitors. Another win in the books, its 16th of a still-young campaign, the pressure of walking into a new hostile environment and keeping the plan all together was lifted. This was relief; the mean streets were back inside the Atlanta gymnasium.
But make no mistake, the Pitt Panthers can still play that role with the best of them.
"There’s a certain level of toughness," Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said, "and then there’s Pittsburgh."
Head coach Jamie Dixon has quietly compiled a roster built to survive the rigors of a major conference schedule. Even as one of the most consistently successful programs nationwide in the regular season, the Panthers might just be the most overlooked team in the country right now, ranked No. 22 despite a 16-1 record with the lone loss coming by one point to a very good Cincinnati team. And they haven’t just beaten their opponents; they’ve purged them.
The Panthers’ 81-74 win against the Yellow Jackets on Tuesday was their smallest margin of victory this season. Of course, the strength of schedule is likely a concern for voters, but where most top teams show signs of trouble or even drop a couple games they shouldn’t, Pittsburgh remained stone-cold in its approach. Rarely does a team dictate the Panthers; they dictate, you follow suit.
"That’s what Coach Dixon preaches: just grind, grind ’em out," sophomore point guard James Robinson said. "All 40 minutes."
Gregory’s team received the brunt end of that philosophy, as Pitt systematically overcame a sloppy first half with an array of smart passing, good decision-making and, of course, crashing the boards. Pitt practically always cleans the glass. It’s a program cornerstone. Since Dixon took the reins from Ben Howland before the 2004 season, the Panthers have finished in the top-10 of offensive rebounding six different times.
"Our numbers are good rebounding-wise. We feel we could be better. Our one loss is when we were out-rebounded. It is an emphasis for us every game. We know their numbers and we know they are missing a guard or two that contributes to that rebounding total. We did a good job," said Dixon, whose program has won at least 20 games for 10 straight seasons. "It starts with good defense and we did a good job defensively for the most part. â¦ It’s about defending and finishing up with the rebound and you have to do both."
Added Gregory: "Give them credit. It doesn’t matter if you have five guards out there, you gotta hit people, you gotta get to the ball and you gotta pursue it. You gotta finish the defensive possession with a rebound and we didn’t do that. So you can make excuses with the injuries or whatever, but you gotta fight on the glass and we didn’t have that."
Pittsburgh has it. The Panthers rank in Ken Pomeroy’s top-10 in cumulative efficiency and even on one of their worst nights — ACC Player of the Year candidate Lamar Patterson couldn’t buy a basket (or a smart decision) in the first half, finishing with 12 points and nine rebounds; it was the team’s first game since sixth man Durand Johnson was declared out for the season with a torn ACL and meniscus — they managed to make the final outcome largely academic midway through the second half. Georgia Tech made some runs, hit on some 3-point plays, but, for some reason, there was never a feeling that the Yellow Jackets, who are dealing with their own string of injuries, were ever going to pull off the upset.
As Robinson said outside Pitt’s locker room, the players never felt like they were losing control. That’s a little easier to say when you’re the better team, but it’s a mentality Dixon tries to infuse into every single recruit. Some guys he loses: eight Pittsburgh recruits have gone on to transfer from Dixon’s program in the past four years alone.
But the ones left behind put together a formidable corps.
Seniors Patterson and Talib Zanna, who carried the Panthers at times against Georgia Tech (22 points, nine rebounds, 153 offensive rating), are enjoying career years. Cameron Wright is a very solid glue guy, especially on the defensive end. Johnson’s injury hurts their depth, but freshmen Mike Young, Chris Jones, Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis have started to earn Dixon’s trust.
And then there’s Robinson, who the head coach called "the smartest guys in the gym." He’s one of those extension-of-the-bench players. There was a moment in the second half when Pittsburgh ran a perfect play against Georgia Tech’s defense, finding a wide open Wright for the easy basket, and the team’s assistants coaches shouted their approval up the sideline to Dixon. The head coach had to tell them he didn’t call the play, though. Robinson did. Coming out of Maryland’s storied DeMatha Catholic High School, Robinson wasn’t the highest-rated floor general in the 2012 class, but it’s pretty clear Pitt found the right guy to fit its scheme.
"He just does so many things," Dixon said. "He’s as good a defender as there is. He has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country. So start with that. He’s only a sophomore, which is probably think of those two things you don’t think of a sophomore doing it."
So what does this 16-1 record and this gelling roster and this relative lack of national recognition — six teams ranked above Pittsburgh in the latest AP Poll feature three or more losses — and this toughness-infused efficiency mean in the grand scheme of things? Nothing if Pittsburgh turns out to be the product of a weak schedule, and even less if the Panthers end up suffering another first-weekend exit from the NCAA Tournament in a couple months.
"All the recognition and notification will come when it comes," Robinson said.
The first test, the first true test, comes against a familiar foe: Syracuse, another tough-minded, stubborn child of the Big East. The two league newcomers who have come into the league taking names and dictating styles will size each other up for the first time as ACC rivals on Saturday. At least the rest of the conference can let its guard down for a change.