Monday, December 29, 2008

Big East Journey Begins With Pitt Stop At Rutgers

By Zach Smart

Jamie Dixon has never been one to make an ant an elephant. He knew that the pre-season point guard dilemma was nothing to stamp home about, nothing to fret over or dwell on, and nothing that would interfere with lofty, titanic aspirations.

“You know, nobody’s feeling sorry for us,” said a serene Dixon, one of the nation’s premier recruiters who molds young talent at the same rate that Bob Marley would smoke trees and sing epic freedom-themed songs.

At the time, there was a question mark surrounding point guard Levance Fields. Fields aggravated an injury to his left foot and was the most experienced, dynamic staple of the Panther backcourt. When Fields is delivering pin-point passes and sticking momentum-rolling threes, Pittsburgh’s college basketball odds of winning increase.

Dixon was going with walk-on Ryan Tiesi (Travon Woodall was out with a concussion as well) and callow freshman Ashton Gibbs in practice, and it looked like an indicator that the mighty may have fallen.

Not so fast.

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Fields has played in every game this season, leading the undefeated Panthers to their zenith while averaging 10 points and 6.4 assists.

With Sam Young (20.1 points, 5.8 boards) establishing himself as one of the country’s elite scorers and 6-foot-7, 265-pound behemoth DeJaun Blair patrolling the paint to the tune of 14.7 points and 13 rebounds per game, Pitt assures you they’re for real this season.

They’ve eaten up the meat of the nonconference schedule in shark-sized bites, going 12-0 while shellacking opponents by an average of 20 points per game.

Prior to their recent 56-48 triumph over Florida State, no team Pitt faced was able to pull within 12 points of them. Dump off and dump off, the Panthers have vaulted into the top chamber of the nation’s most talented teams. They are ranked third and one of four unbeatens, sitting alongside an elite group in UNC, UConn, and Oklahoma.

One player who has come in and forged his imprint is guard Jermaine Dixon. The Baltimore product is the younger brother of NBA guard and University of Maryland standout, Juan Dixon.

For Jermaine, who was raised in the hardscrabble streets during trying times for his family (both of his parents succumbed to AIDS), viewed one as a father figure.
He was essentially raised by his brother and he shoulders that same savvy that Dixon brought to Maryland, when he won coach Gary Williams a national championship over Indiana (that was back when Jarred Jeffries had game) in 2002. Jermaine Dixon has displayed an aptitude for taking cats off the dribble and finishing strong at the cup.
Entering Big East play Dec. 31 at Rutgers, the bullseye is centered on the Panthers’ back.


-In order to make it a close game, the Scarlet Knights must clamp down on Young, who loves to snake along the baseline and get free for jumpers.

-Rutgers has clearly been downgraded to the low-rent district of the Big East after dropping games to St. Bonaventure, Lehigh, ad Binghamton—all teams which lack the personnel and essential ingredients to tred water in the Big East Ocean.

-Sunday’s game at top-ranked UNC, one of the four unbeatens in the NCAA, should help prepare the Knights for the athletic and more intimidating, physical brand of ball that Pittsburgh employs.

-The battle on the boards will be a major component of this Big East opener. With boardsmith DeJuan Blair, the Knights will have their hands full. Super-sized bigs Gregory Echenique and Hamady N’Dyiaye, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-11, respectively, need to become more aggressive and crash the boards. If they want to make it a game, they cannot let the 6-foot-7 Blair outhustle and outstrength them. Echenique has become a presence patrolling the paint, averaging a team-high 9.5 boards per. N’Dyiaye, a Sudan native who’s still sushi-raw and a work-in-progress, has been active on the glass with 7.1 RPG. The task of boxing out Blair and keeping him in check, however, is about as easy as attempting to put toothpaste back in the tube.

-Rutgers has apparently undergone a metamorphosis, with J.R. Inman playing a much lesser role. His minutes have dipped, significantly, while his offensive production has dropped like the flailing economy. With Echenique and N’Dyiye providing a towering tandem that Rutgers hasn’t had in quite some time, the writing’s pretty much on the wall.



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