Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik sat stoically in front of the microphone Saturday afternoon, his voice coated in healthy disappointment, and, like so many other coaches who had been in his position for the past dozen years, with just a pinch of professional jealousy as well.
"No. They're a good basketball team," he replied flatly when asked if victories by the home team in its first three conference games as an ACC member surprised him.
As Pitt (3-0, 15-1) polished off his Demon Deacons, 80-65, at the Petersen Events Center before 12,515, fellow ACC newcomer No. 2 Syracuse was having its way with frequent flag-bearer North Carolina at the Carrier Dome.
Somehow I got the feeling that how Bzdelik and his peers privately feel about the Panthers (and the Orange, for that matter) is the same as how NASCAR fans felt about Jeff Gordon when they realized he was good.
"They're led by a young man who I think is not the elite player in the league, but one of the elite players in the league. I think he's very under-the-radar," Bzdelik continued. "We knew that. I think, as time goes on, he'll continue to show that.
"He's a great leader. He's tough, he's gritty and he can score in a variety of ways."
Redshirt senior forward Lamar Patterson scored in just about every way Saturday, pumping in a game-best 27 points. He did it by shooting 10-of-17 from the field, including 4-of-7 behind the arc, and making all three of his foul shots.
It was enough to earn him ACC Player of the Week honors, becoming the first Panther named a two-time conference player of the week since Sam Young enjoyed that distinction during the 2008-09 season. Patterson leads No. 22 Pitt and the league in scoring, averaging 22.7 points per conference game entering Tuesday night's game at Georgia Tech.
Watching Patterson rev the engines of head coach Jamie Dixon's offense should allay the fears of fans about a bumpy ride through the ACC.
On Saturday he made a short jumper and set up a James Robinson layup as part of an 8-1 run by the Panthers to open the game. When Wake Forest cut their lead to six, he snatched the rebound off a missed free throw from Durand Johnson and dropped in his own layup. The Deacons never got closer.
"We're just playing Pitt basketball," Patterson said. "We want to be the first one to throw a punch."
Patterson made doubly sure Wake Forest didn't get up off the mat in the second half, scoring eight straight points off field goals at one juncture, then completing an and-1 play underneath to extend that lead to 19.
Furthermore, after previously taking early haymakers from North Carolina State and Maryland, Patterson was one of the first to rally his team.
It's one thing to be capable, and as a junior, he showed he could be a leader up front. But it's another thing to be dependable, and after he tapered off in Big East play toward the end of last season, he shows no signs of slowing down at present. He's even earned fringe Player of the Year consideration from CBS Sports college hoops insider Gary Parrish.
"It comes down to consistency," Patterson said at the team's annual media day Sept. 26. "By midseason I was dragging a bit. But we have so much firepower, and so much experience now that, when I'm dragging, those guys can come in."
Despite sharpshooter Tray Woodall graduating, losing versatile J.J. Moore to transfer and watching mountainous center Steven Adams depart for Oklahoma City, Patterson has indeed gotten by with a little help from his friends. Talib Zanna, the other senior on this year's squad, continues looking strong in the middle, and young guard Cam Wright has picked up his game considerably.
In keeping with a theme of all the successful teams under Dixon, Patterson is spreading the ball well among them, and lately he's helping them off the boards a bit more steadily at both ends.
Above all, he is being an aggressor and taking command of the offense—something the Panthers need with a bona fide NBA prospect no longer on the roster.
"It's just hard work and experience," Patterson said Saturday. "I know the ins and outs of the game, and I know what Coach Dixon wants from us."
"He's got a great head for the game. He's a great passer, he shoots it well, he rebounds. He does a lot of things," Dixon said leading up to the start of regular season play. "I think staying healthy is a big thing, and being in the best shape he can be, and I think he's getting to that point."
While Dixon subliminally challenged Patterson to improve his conditioning, it was evident the Lancaster, Pa. native had already risen to the challenge when he tore up the local Greentree Summer League in preparation for Pitt's first ACC campaign.
"This is probably the lightest I've felt going into a season," he said at the time. "We've been running all summer and getting after it."
Patterson only reached double figures in nine of his last 16 games in 2012-13. To begin 2013-14, save for an off night against Fresno State, he has scored double figures in every contest, including a career-high 30 versus Cal Poly Dec. 21, and even an 11-point effort when the Panthers went holiday-snow-storm cold in their lone loss against Cincinnati in the Jimmy V Classic Dec. 17.
Thanks largely to Patterson, Pitt has quickly become one of the most proficient teams in its new conference, shooting a clean 50 percent in ACC play entering Tuesday, and individually, he is flirting with a 60 percent clip. He'll be trying for his third game of 20 or more points in his last five and his sixth 20-point game of the season.
If he does so at McCamish Pavilion, that would make five more 20-point games than he had all of his junior year. The stage is certainly set, with the Yellow Jackets allowing a third-from-the-bottom 75.0 points per game in the early goings of ACC play.
Don't be surprised if he humbles the home team from all over the floor either. Patterson has been getting it done both inside and outside the paint, frequently playing both forward positions for the Panthers.
Now that their depth chart has taken an unfortunate hit with Johnson's season-ending ACL tear Saturday, depriving Pitt of a talented long-range shooter, be even less surprised if Patterson's offensive prowess and can-do spirit becomes a bigger key to the rest of the season.
"First of all, it's good for Lamar, because he's smart enough to do it," Dixon said after the win over Wake. "We have plays to run for him at the three spot, and we ran a couple things for him today we hadn't run all year at the four spot. You put Lamar in there, and it makes us hard to guard."
One thing is certain: He'll be ready to hold the hands of novices Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis and reserve swingman Chris Jones as they see an increase in minutes without the injured sophomore.
"The versatility of Lamar allows us to play Chris with Josh and [starting point guard] James [Robinson] at the same time," Dixon added.
"I had a big role last year. This year, I just need to keep these young guys in line and keep talking to them," Patterson said.
His expectations won't change. If the rest of the Panthers can stay healthy, and if Patterson continues to provide improved leadership, the rest of the ACC might have to adjust theirs.
"I like this team a lot. We'll be playing against great talent all year round, but we've got the tools to be a great team," Patterson declared in the fall.
With several other current ACC front-runners—the Blue Devils, the Cavaliers, and the 'Cuse (which hosts Pitt in the first of two meetings this Saturday)—still on the schedule, we'll find out soon enough.
(Statistics courtesy of TheACC.com and University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.)
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