Wednesday, March 25, 2009


March 26, 2009

'The Next Step.' 'Winning the Big One.'

In sports, the 'what have you done lately' question is often asked. Fans set their expectations for their teams and the bar to achieve those goals is usually a moving target. For the Pittsburgh Panther basketball program, the question keeps arising of when will they take 'the next step'?

In the last eight seasons, Pitt has reached the Sweet 16 in five of them, a mark only bettered or matched by Kansas and Duke. For a program that went 27 years between 1974 and 2001 between appearances in the Round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament, that is quite an accomplishment of it's own.

"[The] Sweet 16 is an accomplishment", Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon reminded media members Wednesday. "If it was wasn't, teams would have got there more than we have. And there's only two that have been there more than we have the last eight years, Duke and Kansas."

"There aren't any byes into the Sweet 16. I think maybe it's forgotten."


In their four previous trips to the Sweet 16 since 1974, two under Dixon and two under his predecessor, Ben Howland, the Panthers have come up empty. Under Howland they lost in overtime to Kent State and then by three points to D. Wade and Marquette the following season. In Dixon's first year it was Oklahoma State that knocked the Panthers out in the Regional Semifinals and in 2007 it was Howland himself with his UCLA squad besting the Panthers in the Sweet 16. Three of those four teams ended up in the Final Four after defeating the Panthers, who were a three-seed in three of those years and a two seed once.

But, now, the Sweet 16 is not met with a sense of accomplishment to Pitt fans. Mention of their previous Sweet 16 losses and the feeling of a 'Sour' 16 is more accurate as they await the Pitt program to take the 'next step.'

Already, this has been a season of new heights and 'next steps' for Pittsburgh. The team led by the star-studded trio of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields have achieved the first #1 ranking in the school's basketball history as well as securing the program's first #1 seed in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Will another first be tackled tonight when they take on Xavier at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston?

Pittsburgh has reached the Sweet 16 with wins over East Tennessee State in Round 1, 72-62, and a victory over Oklahoma State in the second round, 84-76. After a 15-3 Big East regular season, the Panthers finished up with an overall record of 28-4 heading into this year's tournament as the #1 seed in the East Regional. While many have questioned the play of Pitt in the opening two rounds, point guard Levance Fields fully understands there are no style points this time of the year.

"We look at it [that] we survived," said Fields. "No game is guaranteed in the tournament. Being No. 1 seed, everyone is gunning for you."

The next team gunning for Fields and his teammates will be fourth-seeded Xavier.

The NCAA Tournament committee certainly knows how to draw up some drama along the way as they put Xaiver, coached by former Pitt point guard Sean Miller, in their bracket. Also in the East, although eliminated in the second round by Villanova, was UCLA.

"I think obviously he's a proud alum, and we're proud of him at the University of Pittsburgh," coach Dixon said of Sean Miller and the story of former player trying to knock off his alma mater. "So he is a good friend and I think...once we put the ball up in the air, I think everybody knows that both teams are going to be thinking only about trying to take care of business."

Miller echoed many of Dixon's sentiments on the matchup with his alma mater.

"Pitt has a special place for me," said Miller. "I was a student athlete there many years ago now, '87 to '92. I've watched them with a lot of pride over the last eight years."

In many ways the teams that Xavier and Pitt will put on the floor will resemble one another quite closely. Xavier's strength is their size and ability to defend at every position on the floor, much like the reputation of the Panthers.

"Their size," Fields responded when asked Wednesday what concerns Pitt the most about the Musketeers. "They're really tall at every position. So we've got to do a great job of boxing them out and not giving them second chance opportunities."

Fields would be correct in the similarities between Pitt and Xavier, and they have not been developed by accident.

"Alot of the things their program has become known for we, too, try to take great pride in what we do at Xavier; physical play, tough defense, trying to be a solid rebounding team, trying to develop players," said Miller of the Xavier blueprint.

One missing ingredient from his blueprint is DeJuan Blair. The 6'7, 265-lb 'Grizzly Blair' is a relentless beast under the boards for the Panthers. Xavier has size, with Jason Love and freshman Kenny Frease in the post, and 10 fouls to use against Blair. Their hope in slowing Blair is to try and smother him inside with the 6'9 Love and 7-foot Frease and also draw an early foul or two on the 'big fella'
with his penchant to gamble for a steal or two away from the basket.

Blair dominated in the opening round win over ETSU with 27 points and 16 rebounds.

The other difference in this Pitt team with some of the previous editions is the presence of a dynamic offensive talent in Sam Young. In the past, Pitt has been victimized by big individial performances in the NCAA Tournament by offensively talented individuals like D. Wade and Tony Allen, Young looks to be Pitt's answer.

Against Oklahoma State, Young showed a vast array of offensive arsenal, scoring on mid-range jumpers, drilling three-pointers, attacking the rim following his devastating ball fake and finishing off a play with a rim-punishing tomahawk jam off an alley-oops while scoring 23 points...in the first half!

Xavier will hope that senior CJ Anderson, who is physically similar to Young, can get into him defensively and slow Young down. Young can be frustrated by excellent team defense and prone to forcing the issue and committing turnovers against good defense, or, if he gets going early, he can be flat-out dominiating, as Oklahoma State found out and UConn learned, twice, this season.

The other match-up to watch is at point guard. While Pitt has the ideal floor general in the senior Fields, who scored 13 points, dished 9 assists and committed just two turnovers against the pressure defense of the Cowboys of Oklahoma State. Xavier lacks the true point guard as Dante Jackson and Terrel Holloway split the time running the show.

Xaiver will rely on their offensive output to come largely from wings BJ Raymond, a junior, and sophomore Derrick Brown. Both players are capable three-point shooters, especially Raymond who has made 42% of his 197 attempts on the season. Both players have excellent size on the wing and are effecient scorers.

In a season of firsts for the Panthers, look for them to get that first trip to the Elite 8 since 1974. That '74 team was led by local All-American product Billy Knight. Now, in 2009, 25 years later, local All-American product DeJuan Blair looks to take his turn at leadeing the Panthers to new heights. He will have help as well with Young and Fields, the senior duo, doing what they need to in order to get the job done and stamp their Pitt legacy in the process.

The Panthers, according to the college basketball betting lines are the 7 1/2-point favorite. it seems to be a match-up that this year's Pitt panthers have turned the tables on their Sweet 16 opponent.

"This team is different than any other team," Jamie Dixon said of the 2008-2009 Panthers compared to the others that came up short in the Sweet 16. Tonight is the night they show it.

NBE Blogger Prediction:

Pittsburgh 74
Xavier 65



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