PITTSBURGH (AP) – Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has his team well drilled.
The next game is the most important of the season, regardless of what name is stitched across the front of the jersey.
Still, junior guard Cam Wright allows things will be different Monday night when the 18th-ranked Panthers face No. 17 Duke.
Thought Pitt has already swept Maryland and won on the road at Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, Wright is well aware that walking onto the court and seeing Mike Krzyzewski will be borderline surreal.
”Looking down to my left and seeing Coach K on the sideline, I don’t even know how to explain it,” Wright said. ”That will be a pretty remarkable moment I guess.”
One that will make the somewhat emotionally painful transition – though financially lucrative – move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference worth it. Tickets were going for as much as $1,200 on the secondary market on Sunday afternoon, good enough to pay for season tickets and then some.
”People have been talking about it, about tickets,” Dixon said. ”It doesn’t really bother me but my assistants have been a little flustered.”
Maybe, but it hasn’t translated on the court.
The Panthers (18-2, 6-1) were Big East royalty for much of the millennium before moving to the ACC. While the destinations on their conference road trips have changed. The results have not.
Pitt’s only loss in league play so far is to fellow Big East ex-pat and No. 2 Syracuse, which says something about the state of the Panthers’ new home. The ACC hasn’t quite looked like the ACC through the season’s first three months. That includes the Blue Devils (16-4, 5-2), who have already lost on the road to Notre Dame and Clemson.
It doesn’t get any easier for Duke, which travels to the Carrier Dome on Saturday. Two losses would all but take the Blue Devils out of the conference title race by the first week of February. They did provide Krzyzewski a milestone 900th victory at the ACC school on Saturday, grinding to a 78-56 win over Florida State by scoring 29 points off both offensive rebounds and turnovers to overcome 30.5 percent shooting.
”Rebounding is something we’ve really tried to make a focal point these last few weeks,” said Marshall Plumlee, who grabbed all seven of his rebounds on the offensive end as Duke amassed a 47-24 edge for the game. ”Alongside our defense, I feel like it’s something that’s starting to show in recent games so no matter who we play we’re hoping to come up with the W on the boards and defensive stops.”
Duke – winner of four straight – had 27 offensive rebounds Saturday, one fewer than Pittsburgh has given up in its last four games combined. The Panthers also lead the ACC in rebounding margin at plus-9.2 per game, while Duke is 10th at plus-2.8 per contest.
The Panthers, however, refuse to call the Blue Devils vulnerable, or anything else really. Dixon has praised his team’s ability to remain focused on the task at hand. On Saturday, it was finding a way to beat Maryland for the second time in three weeks.
If Pitt was caught sneaking around the corner at Duke, it didn’t show. Lamar Patterson continued his breakout season by scoring 28 points in the Panthers’ 83-79 win over the Terrapins.
Duke and star freshman Jabari Parker – who had 14 points and 14 rebounds Saturday for his second straight double-double – will present a starkly different challenge, though it hasn’t really mattered who Pitt has played at home this season. The Panthers are unbeaten and largely unchallenged at Petersen Events Center, where they are 12-0 this season.
That mark includes a 76-43 dismantling of Clemson last week in which Pitt recorded an assist on 24 of 27 field goals. It’s that kind of selflessness that led Maryland coach Mark Turgeon to call the Panthers ”one of the best teams I’ve ever coached against.”
It’s a compliment Pitt takes in stride because, well, that just what the Panthers do.
After building the program into one of the nation’s elite by becoming one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, Pitt has adapted to decidedly less physical ACC by pulling a switcheroo. Where the Panthers used to plod, now they soar. Pitt is second in the ACC behind Duke (81.6) in points per game (76.4) and first in field goal percentage (48.8) and assists (17.0).
The Panthers are winning with style. Do it on national television on Monday night and they’ll no longer by outliers in a new-look conference. They’ll be front-runners, just like they planned.
”We’re excited but we’re not looking at it as we’re playing Duke next,” Wright said. ”We’re looking at it as a game on our schedule and a roadblock that we have to get past.”