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Sunday column reprint: Better believe Pitt’s ready for Duke

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media

Our technical difficulties the past two days swallowed whole my Sunday Pitt column, so I’m republishing here:

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — It sounded like the kind of thing a coach might say if, oh, Mike Krzyzewski and Duke were coming to town.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, 26 years as a head coach or assistant,” Mark Turgeon, Maryland’s rather high-strung coach, began his press conference Saturday night after Pitt coolly, confidently took apart his Terrapins, 83-79, at Comcast Center.

“And Pitt is one of the best college basketball teams I’ve ever coached against.”

The man really said that. Later repeated it.

And bear in mind, this was after the game rather than before, when coaches invariably build up every opponent to be UCLA circa John Wooden.

“You look at how they play together,” Turgeon continued. “You look at how smart they are, the things Lamar Patterson’s doing out there … it’s like facing a bunch of 30-year-olds out there, how advanced they are. I just have so much respect for what they and Jamie Dixon have done, the program they’ve built.”

Heady stuff, huh?

These are heady times, indeed, for Pitt.

Not just because Patterson continued “playing crazy out there,” as James Robinson colorfully described it, with a dominant 28 points, seven rebounds, seven assists.

Not just because they continue to get double-digit scoring and relentless unselfishness from Talib Zanna, Cam Wright and  Robinson, “doing it all together,” per Wright.

Not just because a freshman such as Jamel Artis – eight points, six rebounds – could put Dixon in position to say contrite stuff like, “I should have played him more. That’s my mistake.”

And no, not just because the Panthers are now 18-2 overall, 6-1 in the ACC and, as Turgeon correctly pointed out, “It’s a joke that they’re ranked No. 20.”

I’ll cast all that aside, if only for fun, and say these are wonderfully heady times because Pitt will play host to No. 18 Duke on Monday at what should be a pulsating Petersen Events Center with the upper hand in nearly every way to this point.

Duke was everyone’s darling heading into this winter, and the Blue Devils might still end up that way. Krzyzewski’s got a fairly healthy track record in March, you might know, with those four NCAA titles and 11 Final Fours. But to date, they’ve been a disappointment at 16-4 overall, 5-2 in ACC. Even Jabari Parker, the freshman phenom once dubbed “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James” on a Sports Illustrated cover, has taken a spell to get going.

Pitt might not be the better team in March. Hey, they might not be the better team on Monday. But they’ve been better to date.

That’s why, if I had to guess, Dixon’s players demonstrably wanted nothing to do with the hype for this game,  even though they’ve heard how the Oakland Zoo wants to upstage the better known Cameron Crazies, even though they’ve heard standing-room tickets are selling for $100 and up.

“We know there are a lot of people excited about it,” Robinson said. “To us, this is the next game we have to play, not about looking over at the other bench. I know Coach K is a legend, but we feel we’ve got a legendary coach in Jamie Dixon.”

You should have seen Patterson cringe when I brought up Coach K.

“Sorry, man,” he came right back. “I’m a Dixon guy.”

That’s how these kids are thinking right now. Go ahead and laugh at them, if you want. Point out Dixon’s failure to reach any Final Fours, compared to Krzyzewski making it a rite of spring. Go ahead and laugh at Turgeon’s remark, too. No question it was over the top.

But all that would be missing the point, so I’ll repeat: That’s how these kids are thinking right now.

And that matters infinitely more than what any of us think, as it relates to the court.

“We’re feeling very good about ourselves and what we can do, no matter who we’re playing,” Wright was saying. “You look at the plays we make, the defense we’re playing, attacking the glass, being unselfish … we’re about believing in each other, and we do.”

No coincidence, but Dixon’s taking the same tack. I asked him about Monday, and his face scrunched up like he’d just gulped warm lemonade.

“I know people have been looking forward to it,” Dixon said. “Really, right now, I’m just proud of our guys, what we did here against a good Maryland team and the effort we gave. We’re improving each game, too. I’m proud of that, as well.”

Eventually, he gave in a bit.

“I know and respect Coach K a lot. What he’s done at Duke is to make the basketball program something that bolsters the university through the program he’s built. That’s what we set out to do. He’s the standard.”

The gold standard, at that.

OK, since no one else will say it: I can’t wait. Pitt made its initial foray into the ACC by facing eventual national football champ Florida State at Heinz Field, but that was akin to inviting the neighborhood bully over to play chess. Everyone knew it would end badly. This, on the other hand, is legit. This is Coach K walking the Pete hardwood. This is Patterson, the ACC’s best current player, against Parker, the one with the best potential. This is Pitt not only entering the ACC but also doing so with a peak. This, I’m betting, will be one of the best basketball environments our city has experienced.

Dixon’s final two words regarding Duke might have been his most revealing: “We’re ready.”

Better believe it.

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Author: Dejan Kovacevic

Dejan Kovacevic, a lifelong Pittsburgher, is an award-winning sports columnist for Trib Total Media covering the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt and, recently, his fourth Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He also appears on WPXI-TV's 'Subway Final Word’ and hosts a weekly show on TribLIVE Radio. For 2011, he was named one of the country's top four columnists by the AP Sports Editors. For 2012, he was named one of the country's top three columnists by the National Headliners. For 2013, he was named the state's top columnist by the Keystone Press Awards and top columnist in Western Pennsylvania by the Golden Quills.

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