ORLANDO, Fla. — — In 2009, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna joined a Pittsburgh men's basketball program that was already established as one of the nation's best.
Five years later, the two fifth-year seniors have played significant roles in keeping the tradition going.
On Thursday, Colorado (23-11) and Pitt (25-9) will face off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, at 11:40 a.m. MDT from the Amway Center.
The Panthers have a lot of youth on the roster, but it is Patterson and Zanna leading them.
"You saw each one of those guys gradually improve as their careers went on, and I think that says a lot," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I mean, when you talk about what you want to get out of seniors, we got that, and you saw a progression, you saw improvement, you saw kids graduating, you saw guys working on second degrees."
Pitt has been one of the most consistent programs in the country in recent years. This will mark the Panthers' 12th trip to the NCAA Tournament in the past 13 years. Just six other teams - Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State, Texas and Wisconsin - have done that.
During that time, since 2001, the Panthers have the fifth-best winning percentage in the country (.766). Only Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and Memphis have won a higher percentage of games.
Plenty of players have been key figures in that run, but this year, Pitt has leaned on Patterson and Zanna.
Patterson, a 6-foot-5 forward, has averaged career highs in points (17.6 per game), rebounds (4.8 per game) and assists (4.3 per game). Zanna, a 6-foot-9 forward, has posted career bests in points (12.9), rebounds (8.8) and blocks (0.8). Neither one came close to those numbers before this year.
Leading the Panthers to another NCAA Tournament together has meant a lot to do the duo.
"Just being here, me and Lamar came together, and ... we just want to lead by example, just set a tone for the younger guys coming up," Zanna said. "We just want to keep the tradition going and just lead by example."
Pitt is 2-3 in NCAA Tournament games since Patterson and Zanna arrived, and they would love nothing more than to improve upon that.
"Us both being seniors, right now this is it, so we're playing our last couple games, so we just want to win, go out on a W," Patterson said.
Although CU doesn't have the long tradition that Pitt does, the Buffs are making a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"You have to cherish these moments, and you have to put - you put your all into these games," CU's Askia Booker said. "Me being a veteran on this team, I have to let these young guys know how important it is and that they can't have slip ups, including myself, that we're going to have to go out there and play for 40 minutes and compete."
The Buffs seem especially motivated after losing to Illinois in their first NCAA game last year.
"I think once you've been here, you want to advance the next time you come, and that's especially coming off the loss to Illinois last year," Boyle said. "It left a little sour taste in our mouth. It helps us, there's no doubt, but every year is a new year."
Dixon said one of the keys to beating CU is to keep Buffs guard Askia Booker under control. Booker averages 14.0 points and 3.4 assists per game and has elevated his game in the second half of the season.
"If he makes tough shots in the half court against our team defense and we're doing things right, we don't believe guys can do that for 40 minutes," Dixon said. "We can't give him transition baskets, we can't give him lay ups, can't let him get to the foul line, and that's something he tries to do. He'll look for contact, he'll try to bring contact upon himself, maybe gets in a crowd, maybe gets in trouble, but at the same time he's trying to get to the foul line, and we've made that clear to our guys."
Patterson has been Pitt's best player, and the Buffs figure to use a team of defenders against him.
"We'll start Xavier Johnson on him and try to keep size on him as best we can," Boyle said. "But Xavier Talton has done a great job, I think, over the last three, four weeks of the season defensively. He'll get a crack at him at times; and Jaron Hopkins when he comes off the bench. So, we're going to have multiple people match up with him. But that's a key match up for us, to contain him as best we can and make everything that he gets, he has to work for it."
Dixon said that Zanna (stomach flu) did not practice on Wednesday. ... CU was at full strength, except for Spencer Dinwiddie (knee, out for the year) at Wednesday's shoot-around. ... CU will wear its home white jerseys. It's the first time in the modern era (since 1970) that the Buffs will wear white in the NCAA Tournament.