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The Big East’s Pinnacle: Pitt

by Andrew Force | January 18th, 2009

After traveling through the undulating landscape of the University of Pittsburgh, longtime fans and curious parties alike stacked the rafters of the immaculate Peterson Events Center.

The buzz in the building exceeded that of a dozen beehives. People stood in the top rows eager to witness the purported preeminent college basketball team. Hundreds of animalistic students crammed into the Oakland Zoo.

“That crowd was a lot, lot bigger,” said St. John’s guard Tyshwan Edmondson.

The Pitt Panthers took the school’s first ever #1 ranking out for a spin on Sunday. Perhaps unsurprisingly the new car had a few kinks in it. Equal parts heightened anticipation and sloppy excitability defined the drivers, the Panthers basketball squad. In the end Pittsburgh rallied to beat St. John’s 90-67.

“Everybody was anxious to get out there,” reflected sturdy Pitt point Levance Fields. He attributed the nerves to an eight-day layoff, but this was uncharted territory for this player, this team, this program, this fanbase, this coach, this city…dubbed the best program in the land.

Pittsburgh earned the number one rating in the RPI, as well. Their #3 strength of schedule will only improve as they tread through the Big East swamp.

Hosting St. John’s Sunday, the Panthers played an uncharacteristically loose style of ball. Passes were a little too hopeful and guards had visions of creating an exclamation point instead of simply getting buckets.

Pitt tried for outrageous no-look passes, improbable alley-oops, and roadrunner quick steals. The outcomes varied between impressive and fumblingly reckless.

With the Steelers’ home playoff game scheduled for hours later, the whole town seeped a youthful giddiness. The last ten months have been especially jubilant, broadly cheery in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who very nearly left town completely, battled to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pitt Panthers’ football team mysteriously won the Big East regular season title and the Steelers continued to give the city hope. Even the top flight PNC Park was only moderately ashamed of its inhabitant.

The Panthers are emblematic of the city of Pittsburgh. Hard-working, never fearful of physical challenges, both pride themselves on strength of body.

At all three frontcourt positions Pitt has a player capable of overpowering any Big East opponent. Sam Young (SF), Tyrell Biggs (PF), and DaJuan Blair (Center) all have natural strength augmented by exhausting workout regimens. More than that, Biggs and Blair have big butts. And they use them.

Heftier than a cinch sack, the pair of brawny B’s can either hold a position or uproot an opposing center. Blair has pulled down over 200 total rebounds to date.

“His approach seems to be ‘You don’t need to run a play for me, I’ll get the ball myself,’” said St. John’s Head Coach Norm Roberts.

Utilizing the Big East’s foremost rear, Blair dislodged Hashim Thabeet, Dele Coker, and Luke Harangody. His 10 offensive rebounds against a scrappy Red Storm team were just silly. Three times this year Blair Bear got his paws on 10 offensive boards in a game.

“He is the most physical guy in the league,” opined Coach Roberts.

How far can this powerful team go?
Ideally this unit will make it past the annual NCAA Tournament dead-end; past the “pitt” of despair. The last five tough, smart, and disciplined teams led by Jamie Dixon have not made it past the Sweet 16.

Three keys to post-season success are competent free throw shooting, limited turnovers, and the ability to make timely defensive stops.

FT shooting is the one necessity Pitt lacks. In rare back-to-back losses last year, the Panthers shot an abysmal 61% as a team.

Pitt guards are capable of playing efficient basketball. Fields has a 4.0 assist to turnover ratio. And newcomer Jermaine Dixon is a capable complement.

Using their aforementioned strength the Panthers lock down many elite offensive players. The opposition is often forced to grind it out like a pencil sharpener.

Continuity is key, too. Because Dixon generally brings in slightly flawed players, Pitt fans get to enjoy their services for all four years. Their personalities mesh beautifully together. If Levance were a step quicker, Blair two inches taller, or Young financially greedier, they all could have left for the League by now.

As it is, all three have contributed to their team’s recent ascendance. Coming off a Big East Tournament Title and this recent #1 national ranking, the Western PA region–recently devoid of dreams–is now filled with fans dreaming big.

If you measure success by competence and confidence, then Pitt is destined to reach even further heights.

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