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Warming Trend for Pitt Basketball

There's a spring in the Panthers' step

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It happens every year: On the coldest day of a Western Pennsylvania winter, some wiseacre will ask, "Cold enough for you?" I always want to respond, "No, I'd like it to reach absolute zero so my kidneys shrink to the size of stale JuJuBe's on the way to my car." Instead, I nod politely and move on. You probably do, too.

And so it is with the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball program. On Jan. 29, the Panthers secured yet another 20-win season, but people just nodded and moved on. Unlike the ubiquitous weather comments, nobody seems to be talking about Pitt.

It was just March 2001 when Pitt hosted the NIT, the Nobody's Interested Tournament. How far they've come since then. But where's the buzz?

Maybe fans are just hedging their bets, lying in wait for March Madness. Pitt is always invited to the NCAA tournament, and yet the Panthers always seem to make an early exit: Kent State, Oklahoma State, Pacific, Bradley ...

A purely statistical analysis hardly inspires confidence that the Panthers can shoot their albatross and get past the Sweet Sixteen this season. (And merely getting to the Sweet Sixteen just isn't enough: For fans to consider the season a success, an appearance in the round of eight is pretty much required.)

Pitt doesn't have a player in the top 25 of any statistical category, except rebounds, where Aaron Gray ranks third in the nation. There are no Panthers in the top 25 in points, or assists, or field-goal-shooting percentage. There are no Pitt players in the top 25 in three-point shooting, or steals, or blocks. As for free-throw shooting, don't make me laugh.

Even team stats don't give an inkling of how good Pitt really is. The Panthers don't even rank in the top 100 in three-point shooting in the nation. (Consider that West Virginia ranks seventh nationally, and such powerhouses as Lipscomb and Nicholls State both rate in the top 100.) Pitt ranks 13th in field-goal percentage, and is tied for 51st in field goals against. As a team, the Panthers are 20th in scoring offense.

But when Mark Twain said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, he might have been speaking of Jamie Dixon's team. His squad this year has a better feel than the teams that lost to Bradley and Pacific. And personally, I'm holding out hope for the Final Four ... not just because they're winning, but because of how they're winning.

They're doing it with contributions from everybody on the bench. I think even the maintenance man came in late during the game against St. John's.

Maestro Dixon's player substitutions have been pitch-perfect. If an opponent tries to shut down Aaron Gray's inside game, the Panthers move it outside, with Ronald Ramon, Levance Fields and Antonio Graves shooting jumpers as they never have before. They seem to alternate nights getting the hot hand. The other thing the stats don't reveal -- and really somebody should track this -- is the timing of their perimeter shooting. Both Fields and Graves dropped threes on Villanova in the waning minutes. That put the game out of reach of Wildcats go-to guard Mike Nardi, who is a mortal lock to date Britney Spears sometime in 2007.

Graves is logging about 28 minutes a game, and contributing 10.3 points -- more than double his average last season. Ramon is averaging 22 minutes and hitting an amazing 46.7 percent of his three-pointers. Fields is on the court for 28 minutes, and posting 9.7 points with 4.7 assists. Newcomer Mike Cook is a revelation: He's playing nearly 25 minutes a game, during which he racks up an average 10.7 points and 3.1 assists. And even those numbers don't do justice to his smooth jumper and vision on the court.

Was Cook the missing link? Not likely. None of these players are exactly locks for the NBA, except for Gray, largely due to his size. But they are all working together, combining the defense we've come to take for granted with big production on offense we haven't seen before.

Do the Panthers have what it takes to knock off a Florida or UNC or UCLA in March? Maybe not. But they're getting warmer.

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