Pitt's surprising first-place ACC run fueled by disrespect

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Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel reacts to a play as his team takes on Boston College during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

PITTSBURGH – The anger is still tangible to Greg Elliott and the rest of the Pittsburgh Panthers. Accessible, too.

A couple of swipes on Elliott's phone takes him back to the preseason poll that picked Pitt to finish 14th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference. Four months, 19 wins and one surprising sprint to the top of the ACC later, it still makes the guard shake his head.

“I think our whole team, put together, felt disrespected,” the Marquette transfer said. “Everyone felt like they had a chip on their shoulder and had something to prove.”

The edge has not dulled even with Pitt (19-7, 12-3 ACC) inching toward its first NCAA tournament berth since 2016 — maybe because the slights continue to pile up.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim claimed earlier this month the Panthers were among the teams that “bought” players to help turn their programs around, a comment the Hall of Famer quickly walked back.

And Pitt is still waiting to return to the AP Top 25 poll, nibbling at the fringe recently but struggling to impress voters despite a resume that includes a sweep of North Carolina and home upsets over Virginia and Miami that restored some of the swagger to the Petersen Events Center.

A venue that was among the rowdiest in the nation more than a decade ago during the program's Big East power years has had more of a library-like feel in recent years. But there are signs of life: The “Oakland Zoo” student section that sits — well, OK, stands — courtside during games has been packed almost all season. The paying customers that avoided the program in droves as it plummeted to the bottom of the ACC are returning. The first sellout since 2019 watched the Panthers stun the Hurricanes in the final seconds.

Coach Jeff Capel is taking none of it for granted. Neither are his players, some of whom began their careers at higher-profile destinations before alighting to Pitt in search of opportunity.

Do-everything guard Jamarius Burton, who is mounting a serious bid for ACC Player of the Year, bounced from Wichita State to Texas Tech before landing at Pitt in 2021. Elliott made all of 11 starts in four seasons at Marquette before taking a chance on Pitt. Blake Hinson didn't play at all during two lost years at Iowa State, and now is averaging 15.9 points after being given the green light by Capel to let it fly from wherever he wants, whenever he wants.

Six of Pitt's top seven scorers have resumes with at least one other stop. The only Panther that signed here out of high school — forward John Hugley — is sitting out the rest of the season to focus on his mental health.

The pieces that look thrown together on paper seem to fit at Pitt, which Elliott ascribes to a “connectivity” that is difficult to describe but invaluable both on the floor and off. Multiple times this season Capel has attributed his team's success to a lack of ego, a humbleness that came from being spending years being humbled elsewhere.

It's not uncommon for the Panthers to gather at someone's apartment or house to watch an upcoming opponent. It's not uncommon for Capel to ask his players what they think about something, be it during practice or a timeout in the middle of a game — a courtesy he doesn't remember extending to any of his four previous teams at Pitt.

Maybe because he's never had a team that exudes maturity the way this group does, staying calm when things get tight. It's not a coincidence that Pitt is 6-1 in conference games decided by three points or less.

Another test awaits Saturday at Virginia Tech (15-11, 5-10), which has already knocked off Duke and Virginia at home. If Pitt survives, a favorable schedule down the stretch offers the possibility that the regular-season finale at Miami on March 4 could be for the ACC title.

Not bad for a team picked to finish at the other end of the spectrum, a team that knows a reminder of the program's forgettable recent past — Pitt entered the year 25-83 in ACC play since the start of the 2016-17 season — is only one or two clicks away.

It's a past the current Panthers are distancing themselves from 40 competent, cohesive minutes at a time.

“We got into every game (knowing) there was only one team (the experts) had under us (in the preseason) and that was Georgia Tech,” Elliott said. “So everybody else is ahead of us (in our minds) and we've got to get ahead of them. That's how we think about it.”


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