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December 6, 2008
Around the Rim
The Panthers Strike

by John Perrotto

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Pittsburgh has the requisite flash and dash of a top-ranked team.

Senior forward Sam Young is one of the most explosive leapers in college basketball. Senior point guard Levance Fields sets Young up with some of the niftiest lob passes going. Behemoth sophomore forward DeJuan Blair is a slightly bigger version of Charles Barkley, yet quite light on his feet for a guy who stands 6'8" and is charitably listed at 265 pounds.

Yet, it isn't athleticism that opposing coaches and players talk about after facing the Panthers, off to an 8-0 start for the seventh straight season while ranked No. 3 in both the Pomeroy Rankings and Associated Press poll. What most impresses everyone is Pitt's blue-collar mentality, fitting for a team that plays in the town once known as the blue-collar capital of the United States when it truly was the Steel City.

"They have a lot of talent and they're impressive," said Aaron Jackson, the point guard at Duquesne, located just two miles down Forbes Avenue from Pitt. "But what really stands out is they do the same things that teams that have less talent like us have to do to be successful. They play hard and give a great effort. They dive on the floor after every loose ball. They crash the boards. They play really good defense. They never let up."

That is why Pitt has become a perennial top-25 team since not long after Ben Howland became the coach prior to the 2003-04 season following a successful stint at Northern Arizona. Howland led Pitt to the NCAA tournament twice in four seasons, including ending a nine-year drought in 2002, by preaching that defense always came first and that everyone should share the wealth on offense.

Jamie Dixon, in a bit of a surprise move, was promoted from assistant to head coach when Howland decided he wanted a homecoming and the late Skip Prosser didn't. Howland, a Los Angeles native, left for UCLA following the 2002-03 season while Prosser, who grew up just outside Pittsburgh in Carnegie, Pa., turned down an offer from Pitt to stay at Wake Forest.

Dixon grew up in southern California and acted in commercials as a child. Despite the resume of a pretty boy, he has blue-collar ideals.

Pitt has been to the NCAAs in each of Dixon's first five seasons while employing the same style as Howland coached. If anything, the Panthers seem to play stickier man-to-man with each passing season. They are 12th in the nation in adjusted defense this season with an 81.8 mark.

"I've been coaching 26 years and I've never seen a team play better man-to-man," said Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tom Green, whose Knights lost 86-63 to Pitt in the season opener. "They really get after it and just smother you. We play three or four big-time teams every year and none of them have ever played defense like this Pitt team."

The Panthers, who host Vermont on Saturday night, aren't overly impressed with their defense so far this season, though.

"We're playing pretty well but I know we're capable of better," Blair said. "We're still trying to find our groove. It's early in the season. The best is yet to come on the defensive end, I really believe that."

While scoring has often seemed like an afterthought at Pitt, the Panthers ranks third in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency with a 125.1 mark. Only North Carolina (126.7) and Notre Dame (126.2) have been better.

Young is leading Pitt with a scoring average of 19.9 while Blair (15.1) and Fields (11.6) are also in double figures followed by freshman guard Jermaine Dixon is at 8.3 and senior forward Tyrell Biggs at 8.1. The key to Pitt's offense has been Fields as he is averaging 6.9 assists after missing 12 games last season with a broken foot that he re-broke in the spring, keeping him out of summer-league action.

"He really changes our team," Dixon said. "He's a veteran point guard who knows our offense and has a knack of always making the right pass."

Pitt also has quite a knack for pulling down rebounds as Blair leads the way with a 13.0 average while Young has a 5.9 average and Biggs is at 5.1.

"Pitt is relentless when the ball leaves the shooter's hand," said Duquesne coach Ron Everhart, whose team lost 78-51 to the Panthers on Wednesday night. "They believe they are going to get every rebound."

There is also reason to believe Pitt can advance beyond the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs for the first time since 1974 when it lost to North Carolina State, a team that went on to a perfect season, in the East Regional final. However, don't tell that Dixon.

"We've got a long road ahead of us a lot of work left to do, a lot of work," Dixon said.

Triple-Double for Smith

They have been playing basketball for 100 years at Tennessee but junior forward Tyler Smith did something Wednesday night that no other Volunteers played had done before. Smith posted the first triple-double in school history in an 87-69 home win over North Carolina-Asheville.

Smith had 12 points, ten rebounds and a career-high ten assists in 26 minutes in Tennessee's 2,338th all-time game. Smith reached triple digits in a third category with a pass that set up Scott Hopson's three-point field goal with 7:30 remaining.

"That's something I wanted to do. I want to set up my teammates," Smith said. "The rebounds and the points, I try to get those all the time but my assists aren't always going to be that high. I was lucky to get it. With so many great players coming through this university, to be the first player in history is an honor to me."

Smith, a native of Giles County, Tenn., is averaging 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 29.1 minutes a game for the Volunteers (6-1), who are tenth in the AP poll and 15th in the Pomeroy Ratings going into Saturday's game at Temple. Smith joined Tennessee last season after beginning his college career at Iowa.

"I'm happy for Tyler and happy he is a Tennessee boy," said Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl, who recorded his 400th victory in his 509th career game, making him the sixth-fastest to reach that milestone after Adolph Rupp, Clair Bee, Jerry Tarkanian, Roy Williams and Henry Iba. "He came home to do this. He is one of the most productive players in college basketball."

Tar Heels Keep Rolling

North Carolina has 22 regular-season games to go and seemingly a bunch more after that. However, all the pre-season talk about the Tar Heels going through the season undefeated seems to look more realistic with each passing game, particularly after they dismantled Michigan State 98-63 on Wednesday night at Ford Field in Detroit.

While North Carolina (8-0) has been a unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll since the start of the season, Michigan State (4-2) is certainly not a slouch as it is ranked 13th. The Tar Heels are No. 2 in the Pomeroy Ratings behind Gonzaga while the Spartans are 42nd.

North Carolina made things look so simple that it almost appeared they were facing a Division II school in a pre-season exhibition game despite playing for the eighth time in 18 days. Even the Tar Heels couldn't help but be impressed.

"This team, having a schedule like that and we're even banged up, so to play the way that we did is pretty impressive," senior guard Bobby Frasor said. "We can still get better. I don't know if that's scary or what for other teams but we have a chance to be a really, really good team."

In addition to leading the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, North Carolina is seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency with a 78.8 mark.

News and Notes

  • Michigan State senior center Goran Suton will miss at least two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is averaging 6.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in 23.5 minutes a game.
  • Wake Forest junior forward Jamie Skeen, who was ineligible for first semester because he violated the university's academic policy, has left school. Skeen averaged 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in 21.5 minutes during his two seasons with the Demon Deacons.
  • Villanova junior center Casiem Drummond has decided to leave the program. He averaged 5.5 points and 2.0 rebounds in 9.5 minutes a game.
  • Xavier sophomore guard Jordan Crawford had his request to play this season after transferring from Indiana last summer rejected by the NCAA. Crawford's argument was that he should not have to sit out a full season like the majority of transfers since he left Indiana because of a coaching change necessitated when the NCAA found Kelvin Sampson guilty of violating rules against phoning recruits.
  • San Diego State senior forward Lorenzo Wade has had his suspension from the team lifted after felony burglary charges against him were dropped. Wade, who was accused of stealing a television from a woman's apartment, averaged a team-high 14.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 32.3 minutes a game last season.
  • Marshall sophomore guard Brandon Powell, who began his college career at Florida, has decided to leave the program. Powell was averaging 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 21.0 minutes a game.
  • Seven of the eight teams have been set for next season's Old Spice Classic at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.: Alabama, Baylor, Creighton, Iona, Marquette, Michigan and Xavier. The final team will be announced at a later date.

Games to Watch

Five games to watch in the next week based on the Pomeroy Rankings with all times Eastern

No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 24 Notre Dame at Indianapolis, Saturday Dec. 6, 4 p.m., ESPNU
No. 23 Baylor at No. 8 Washington State, Saturday Dec. 6, 11:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net
No. 14 West Virginia vs. No. 21 Davidson at New York, Tuesday Dec. 9, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 11 Texas vs. No. 13 Villanova at New York, Tuesday Dec. 9, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 Gonzaga at No. 8 Washington State, Wednesday Dec. 10, Fox Sports Northwest

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Not So Fast (12/03)
<< Previous Column
Around the Rim (11/29)
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Around the Rim (12/26)
Next Article >>
(12/06)

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