Heading into the final weeks before the conference tourney, the Pitt Panthers basketball team finds itself ranked 14th in the nation, with only three losses besmirching the record. How'd that happen?
There are no real stars on this team, no consistent shooting threats. Not one Pitt player ranks in the Top 50 in any offensive category: points, field goal percentage, three-point shooting, or free-throw shooting. In terms of individual accomplishment, only center Aaron Gray makes a mark, ranking 13th in the nation in rebounds with 10.5 boards a game.
In short, there's nobody here to make Dick Vitale pant, let alone hyperventilate. So, really, how did they get to 19-3?
For starters, they follow the lead of their Methuselah, Carl Krauser, and play gritty, team-first basketball. They pass the ball selflessly: The perimeter guys try to get it in to Gray, and he often dishes it back outside to the guy left open by the double-teams Gray frequently draws.
And Pitt plays great defense, which has become its hallmark. The Steelers aren't the only team in town that can lay the wood to opposing offenses. Even knowing the Panthers' reputation, a shocked Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after a Jan. 15 beat-down, "This is a football league in a basketball league. You play with pads on."
Even Pitt's four-point loss to top-ranked UConn on Jan. 31 showed what is right with Pitt. The Panthers were a dismal 2 for 20 from three-point range against UConn -- but had just two more of those dropped, the Panthers would have continued rising in the polls. And with tenacity bordering on pugnacity, Pitt overcame a 9-point halftime deficit, pulling within one point of the Huskies.
Against Georgetown, the Panthers staked themselves to a 15-point lead early, but let it slip away when Georgetown turned up its own defense. Only Aaron Gray and Ronald Ramon showed up in the second half. On almost every other night, though, somebody different -- and often somebody unexpected -- has come up big for the Panthers.
Newcomer Sam Young's contribution was invaluable against Notre Dame, and eight days later, the turning point in the game largely came on the strong second-half play of freshman Levance Fields, who contributed six points in that half. Fields and Young again combined for key points in the Louisville game.
Against Rutgers, the Panthers got an unexpected boost from Levon Kendall, who is known for his great defense and passing, but rarely shoots the ball -- even when he's wide open. That day, he notched his first career double-double (14 points and 13 rebounds). Additional firepower was supplied by youngster Keith Benjamin, who scored 12 points.
Playing Marquette, the Panthers got a lift from the most unexpected player of all: Antonio Graves, a starter last year who has fallen to eighth or ninth on the depth chart. All Graves did was come in while Pitt was struggling and put up 19 points, sinking three of four three-pointers.
Pitt's defense against West Virginia was so tight that the Panthers goaded Kevin Pittsnogle to foul out before he dropped a single trey. Nobody playing for the Mountaineers has any interest in going inside, so Coach Jamie Dixon moved Pitt's defense outside. That took away WVU's bread-and-butter three-pointer. And Pittsnogle.
On Sunday, the Panthers' offense exploded. (Yes, scoring 89 points counts as an explosion of offense for Pitt.) They got contributions from Ronald Ramon, who was dropping threes throughout the first half, and Keith Benjamin, who came on strong and contributed a career-high 16 points.
The Panthers, then, are stalwart and resolute. They just usually don't shoot very well.
In fact, they're a whole lot like the Steelers -- the Steelers in the Kordell Stewart era, that is. They win by keeping games close with their D. But with their poor shooting, it's never pretty. Not by a long shot. Or even a layup.
Sadly, in spite of their admirable grit, without more consistent offense it's unlikely the Panthers will make much noise in the NCAA Tourney. In the biggest games, they can't count on Graves, Young or Benjamin consistently. They can't match high-scoring squads bucket for bucket. But you can expect more bodies flying around the court.