PITTSBURGH - Pitt views Duke as the standard for college basketball, one that stands in its way of an ACC championship, so the Panthers have a healthy respect for the Blue Devils and plans to earn theirs.
No. 18 Duke (16-4, 5-2) and its legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski, visit No. 20 Pitt (18-2, 6-1) for the first time at 7 p.m. Monday at Peterson Events Center, the first game of ESPN's “Big Monday” telecast.
Pitt and Duke last met as undefeated, top-10 teams in the Aeropostale Classic on Dec. 20, 2007, at Madison Square Garden. Panthers point guard Levance Fields made a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left for a 65-64 overtime victory.
This time, the Blue Devils see Pitt as the favorite.
“They're a really physical team, older team. We've got to go up there and fight and try to get a win,” Duke forward Rodney Hood told the (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer. “They're at the top of the conference, and that's where we want to be.”
The Panthers are aware of Duke's history: four national championships, six NCAA runner-up finishes, 15 Final Fours, 22 ACC regular-season and 24 ACC Tournament titles, 36 All-Americans and nine national players of the year. And they know Coach K is the all-time victories leader (973) in Division I who just won his 900th game at Duke, joining Syracuse's Jim Boeheim as the only coaches to accomplish that feat at one school.
Pitt can't wait to prove which team is better.
“It's going to be a great game,” Pitt fifth-year senior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “Duke obviously has a prestigious program. They've got national championships. They've got one of the best college coaches ever. They're just known for their success.
“So when you have a team like us and coach (Jamie) Dixon — he's building a program, and we're reaching a level where Duke is at — it draws a lot of attention. Our fans are going to be ready, the Oakland Zoo is going to be ready, and we're going to be ready.”
Dixon doesn't downplay Duke's status as one of college basketball's elite programs, calling it a model for what he is trying to build. But he believes in his Panthers, even though the Blue Devils have a roster filled with blue-chip recruits.
“I love the guys we have, and I've said that all along,” Dixon said. “One of my assistants said that I probably have higher expectations for this group than anybody around. I think we have the best guys. I don't care what award they got three or four years ago. It's what they want to become, not what they were.”
So Dixon will take his talented tandem of Patterson and Talib Zanna — who are combining for almost 32 points a game — against Duke's high-scoring Hood and freshman phenom Jabari Parker. The 6-foot-8 Hood, a transfer from Mississippi State, averages 17.7 points and has scored 20 points or more 11 times, while the 6-9 Parker, a potential top-5 NBA Draft pick, averages 18.7 points and 8.0 rebounds and has six double-doubles.
“I know them, and I watch them. They've got good players,” Patterson said. “That's what makes Duke ‘Duke.' They've got great players. But Pitt's known for having guys who don't have the accolades but just get down and gritty and grinding stuff out. If that's what we have to do, that's what we're going to do.”
Perhaps that's why Patterson was dismissive of talk of the presence of Coach K standing on the sidelines at the Pete for the first time.
“I'm a Dixon guy, anyway,” Patterson said. “Coach K is a legend, but we're trying to get Dixon to be a legend, also.
“It's going to be crazy. The Oakland Zoo is the best student section in the world, so I'm looking forward to getting out there and seeing how they are. First and foremost, I want to get the W.”
(Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.)