Jaye Crockett, Lamar Patterson

Lamar Patterson’s improvement the biggest reason Pitt’s a legitimate ACC contender

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BROOKLYN — On Monday, after watching Pitt put a 23 point beatdown on Texas Tech, I wrote that the Panthers looked like they will be the team that takes advantage of some of the struggles the powers in the ACC have had this season.

On Tuesday, Jamie Dixon’s  club made me look smart. In their first real test of the season, the Panthers methodically took control against Stanford in the first half, leading 43-28 heading into halftime, before closing out an 88-67 win. Every time the Cardinal looked like they were on the verge of a run to get back into the game, Pitt had an answer, and more often than not, it was Lamar Patterson that provided that answer.

Patterson is a guy that you’ve probably heard of before. A fifth-year senior, Patterson is one of those guys that feels like he has been in college forever. But he’s always been a role player, a piece in the Panther machine. He’s been a glue guy, a skilled-but-inconsistent wing that has tantalized with his versatility just as much as he’s underwhelmed with his play at times.

But he’s the key to the Panthers this year.

This Pitt team lacks star power. Jamie Dixon has never been a guy that goes after players based on where they rank on top 100 lists, opting to instead pursue guys that are willing to wait for their time to shine while spending two or three, and sometimes four, years to get their chance. And while that’s worked for him, it creates a scenario where it’s tough to peg exactly where the production is going to come from.

Now we know. In two games in Brooklyn this week, Patterson averaged 23.5 points, 5.0 assists, 3.0 boards and 3.5 blocks. On the season, he’s now averaging 17.0 points, 5.3 assists, 4.3 boards and 1.5 steals while shooting 46.7% from three and 50.0% from the floor.

“He’s a big time player,” Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins said of Patterson. “I always look at big time players and what they do on big stages. Tonight, playing for a championship, he showed who he is. He wasn’t rattled, he played with poise all game. It just tells you who he is. He’s a winner.”

That’s who Patterson is. He’s not Andrew Wiggins and he’s not Jabari Parker. He’s got a well-rounded skill-set, but he’s not a guy that is going to be shooting up NBA draft boards because of his overwhelming physical tools or an supernatural ability to put the ball in the basket. He’s smart, he’s fundamentally sound, he knows the game and he knows his game.

Most importantly, he knows what his role is on this team. He’s waited his turn, and now it’s his time to lead.

According to Dixon, one of the biggest reasons that Patterson is playing so well is that he put in the work this summer to get himself into better shape.

“He always ahd skills, he could pass and shoot, but he’s a better athlete. He’s in better shape right now,” Dixon said. “That comes from physical maturity and also mental maturity. He’s taken that challenge. We set a goal for him, and he reached it. It’s been a battle, but he got to it. That’s why he’s quicker, stronger, jumps better.”

“Now we call him an athlete, it’s been our running joke.”

Pitt wasn’t thought of as a contender for the ACC title in the preseason, and while they’ve been arguably the most impressive team in the conference through the season’s first three weeks, the Panthers are still playing with a chip on their shoulder. They still consider themselves the underdog, and they won’t be quick to forget all the people that had them in the bottom half of the league prior to the start of the season.

“A lot of people have written us off. We see those things,” Patterson said. “I’d be ignorant if I said we didn’t [pay attention to preseason rankings]. It’s obvious. It’s out there. Coach talks about it in the locker room. It’s extra motivation.”

“We just want to go out there and show people what we can do.”

It’s only six games into the season, but those people have taken notice of Pitt.

And of Lamar Patterson.

UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman out with a knee injury

UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. shoots against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
(L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.

The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.

They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.

That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.

Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:

VIDEO: Buddy Hield is ‘all money’ on game-winning three vs. No. 24 Texas

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) takes a shot over Oklahoma State forward Chris Oliver during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
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With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.

At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:

“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”

“It’s all money.”

Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.

Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .

Want to talk about coaching luxuries?

Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.