Pittsburgh's Lamar Patterson aiming to finish career with ACC and Big East titles

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Lamar Patterson took his diet more seriously this offseason, and the results are showing on the court. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)

Lamar Patterson

Pharaoh the alligator is, as carnivorous predators go, low maintenance. His home is a large tank with a lamp and a water heater to keep warm. He has a small pool for swimming. When he finishes with that, he crawls on to a large tower to splay his foot-long, black-and-gold-coat across some rocks. He is rather territorial, so it is important to make sure he eats what he’s fed as opposed to just killing the prey and leaving them there, which can cause a bit of a odor problem.

“It’s not a big, scary alligator that everyone thinks,” said Lamar Patterson, proud custodian of the pet he calls “Ro” for short. “He doesn’t look like a lizard, but he could be mistaken for a lizard if you had no idea what an alligator is. It’s easy taking care of an alligator, really. Once you set it up, you can leave him back there and not have to worry about him. He’s fine. You go buy some fish every now and then and he’ll be fine.”

Patterson has tended to his final season with much more intensive care. The 6-foot-6 fifth-year senior reshaped his habits, his approach and his body to lead Pittsburgh’s charge into the ACC. He has become one of the best players in the league or arguably the country, a multifarious forward whose court vision is heralded by opposing coaches – but only because Patterson ensured that the year didn’t go to waste.

A new diet and a dedication to conditioning complemented Patterson’s naturally selfless play, all of which powered the nation’s 9th most efficient offense and a 6-1 start in the ACC (18-2 overall). Along with Syracuse’s unblemished run, this is a hostile takeover by former Big East schools, and Duke’s visit on Monday is another statement opportunity for Patterson and his program.

He is the old hand averaging 17.9 points, up from 10.0 last year, while adding 4.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists and shooting 51.3 percent. All personal bests in a slow-cooked career. On the other side Monday will be the Blue Devils’ first-year star, Jabari Parker. Patterson’s is the team from which little was expected. A win over Duke is a measure of validation. One late January game will not define a season or a career. But it is no stretch to say Patterson has waited years for this.

“We’ve seen that they weren’t really expecting much from Pittsburgh this year, as far as winning the conference or being at the top of the conference or anything like that,” Patterson said. “We look at that like, are y’all serious? Like, come on now. So we’re just going out there playing our game. I want to be able to leave college saying I won a Big East championship and an ACC championship. Not many people will be able to say that.”

Not many contribute as much, so vitally, as Patterson. His Win Shares total – an estimate of how many victories are attributable to a player’s offensive and defensive performance – is 4.2. That ranks sixth nationally and matches the figure for Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the consensus frontrunner for national player of the year. It outpaces the total for Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis (3.6) and Duke’s Parker (3.2). Patterson was among a handful of conspicuous omissions from the midseason Wooden Award watch list, but then again, seeing may mean believing.

“He does everything well,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “He can shoot it, he’s an elite passer, he’s an elite ball-handler for his size. He just keeps you on your heels. His vision is way above most players that we play against. He sees things well before they’re happening. I knew that from watching film, but when you see him up close, you’re even more impressed with the way he’s playing the game. You appreciate his change of pace, the poise with which he plays. You kind of watch plays develop yourself and see that he sees it.”

Or as Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory put it: “Whatever needs to be done to help his team, he’s able to do at a high level.”

First, though, Patterson had to do something for himself.

Around this time in previous seasons, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon tapered his team’s workload via practices that were heavy on intensity but not duration. And around this time, Patterson would get heavy. The lack of extended exercise combined with a poor diet to slow Patterson just when the season revved up. He was eating out four to five times a week. His decision-making, in this area, was suspect.

“It would be the most unhealthy food you can think of,” Patterson said.

This didn’t matter as much during a redshirt year or when he played bit roles early in his career. But the urgency of a final season changed his mind about his habits. Last summer, he had probably his first serious discussion with a nutritionist that visits Pittsburgh, and the two laid out a fairly common sense game plan.

No fried food. ("A weakness," as Patterson put it.) Always eat breakfast, a meal Patterson concedes he regularly skipped. Shop for groceries and cook at home as much as possible, a win-win that would result in healthier fare and more money in his pocket. Ultimately, Patterson was told to eat more, really, but be more selective, adding apples and granola bars as snacks and then fixing himself baked chicken with vegetables for dinner.

The restructured diet has made this January unlike any other in more than one sense. “It makes you feel a lot clearer inside and you have more energy throughout the day,” Patterson said. “I’m lighter than I actually started the season, weight-wise. I feel good. I feel a lot stronger.”

Still, the extra effort is not limited to the kitchen. Patterson squeezes in 20-minute sessions on the elliptical machine or treadmill or stair-stepper any chance he gets. He runs from one area of practice to another, rather than jogging.

During the summer, much of the Panthers’ rapport evolved during workouts that began 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. It was a stark departure from previous years, but thanks to scattered summer-school schedules, it was the only time that the entire team could gather for conditioning or basketball work.

Often enough, when point guard James Robinson slunk into the gym for that day’s near-dawn toil, he spotted Patterson, the well-worn veteran, logging even more miles on a cardio machine. Before anyone else showed up, the oldie was sweating. “He was showing us that extra effort, and we all got on board with that,” Robinson said. “I think we all admired him for it. It was good to see our senior captain putting in that extra work to set the example.”

To do that, Patterson established ground rules early. “I was always busting my butt to show them, this isn’t a game,” Patterson said “I know that’s not an ideal time to be waking up and working out, but I just tried to keep a positive mindset and go hard and I didn’t let any days pass me by. These guys just fell in and understood, yeah, this is what needs to be done. We felt like we were going through like boot camp, we were suffering, but it definitely pays off. It changes your mindset.”

By now, maybe no matter what happens against Duke, people’s minds should be changed about the Panthers. Their lone ACC blemish is a 59-54 loss at Syracuse on Jan. 18, and the rematch takes place in Pittsburgh on Feb. 12. But there is no return trip to Duke, and the only meeting with Virginia is in the Petersen Events Center next Sunday. An offense that is the Panthers’ most efficient in three years and a defense ranked No. 11 in kenpom.com’s rankings suggest a lengthy run in a down ACC.

Patterson has his shot at two titles in two different leagues, going out on the high note he and fellow fifth-year senior Talib Zanna openly discussed before the season began. As strong is his shot at ACC Player of the Year honors. His offensive rating of 124.0 ranks 11th in the league and, as a 6-foot-6 forward, his assist percentage of 32.7 percent – an estimate of teammate field goals assisted while he was on the floor – leads the ACC. On the other end, his steal percentage of 3.1 – the amount of opponent possessions that end in a pilfer by Patterson -- ranks ninth in the conference.

“In terms of impact on the game, maybe only McDermott at Cerighton has a bigger impact on the game than Patterson does,” Gregory said. “He sets the tone for the unselfishness those guys play with.”

He is doing everything, for sure.

As he spoke, in fact, Patterson changed a diaper.

He has a newborn son, a little more than a week old. In this he is experienced, too. Patterson also has a six-year-old son – their alligator-riding on a trip to Florida inspired Patterson’s girlfriend to bring Pharaoh into their lives as a Christmas gift in 2012 – so he is familiar with stealing naps and feeding schedules and high-wire balancing acts.

After a meal and the diaper switch, Patterson figured the baby would be asleep any second. He sees it all coming now, everywhere, in his final year at Pittsburgh. He knows the system, he knows the ins and outs. He has seen a lot of people in college come and go. Now, at the end, Patterson sees everything falling into place just so.