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After cruising with an early-season slate in which it never ventured outside the Pittsburgh city limits, Coach Jamie Dixon's Pitt club demonstrated against South Carolina and Wisconsin that it is still a force to be reckoned with, both within the Big East Conference and nationally.

Coach Jamie Dixon's University of Pittsburgh team started the season 9-0 but got the kind of response that usually comes with the type of schedule the Panthers had played to that point.

 

Yawn . . .

 

The team never left the state for one of those nine games – in fact, it never left the city, playing eight contests in the Petersen Events Center and the other at Duquesne.

 

But Dixon's team demonstrated it was clearly worthy of a Top 25 rating (it moved into the Scout.com rankings this week at No. 23) with its most recent performances, a 58-51 victory at South Carolina and 73-64 decision over Wisconsin.

 

So don't look for the Panthers to miss out on a sixth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and third in a row since Dixon was hired to replace Ben Howland when the guy he helped rebuild the program moved West to UCLA.

 

Guard Carl Krauser was the only full-time starter to return from last season's 20-9 team that finished fifth in the Big East Conference before losing to Pacific in the first round of the of the NCAA Tournament.

 

And even Krauser wasn't expected to be around after last season. He seemed fully committed to staying in the NBA Draft before wising up to the fact that it was unlikely he was going to be drafted.

 

He's still a bit turnover prone (he averages 3.3 per game, down from last season's 4.2) and can play a little quicker than suits Dixon's tastes at times.

 

But he's got his best ever scoring average (17.2 points per game) and is shooting nearly 50 percentage points better from the field (.463) than he did as a junior.

 

But what makes this potentially the best offensive team Pitt has had since the revamping of the Panthers by Howland and Dixon is the fact that there are so many places Dixon can turn to for offense.

 

In 7-foot, 260-pound Aaron Gray, the Panthers have a guy who has evolved into one of the best low-post threats in the conference while averaging 11.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.7 blocked shots per game.

 

And the two classes of recruits signed by Dixon and his staff after Howland left have both proven highly productive.

 

Among those six players, Dixon is getting a cumulative 33 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists per game.

 

And, even with guards Devan Downey of Cincinnati and Dominic James of Marquette having marvelous non-conference performances, Dixon – in 6-foot-6 Sam Young – has a player who could be rated the Big East's best freshman by the time conference tournament action rolls around in March.

 

The Panthers play eight Big Eight games this month, beginning with a home game against Notre Dame Wednesday and wrapping up with a contest at Connecticut on the last day of January.

 

By the time Pitt plays at Georgetown on Feb. 5, it might reveal itself as a squad capable of winning a Big East regular-season title.

 

And, last spring, who might have suggested that?

 

BOUNCING AROUND THE COUNTRY:

*Even in its loss at Pittsburgh, Wisconsin continued to impress as a team fully capable of finishing in the top five – or better – in the Big Ten Conference.

 

And, along with the consistently outstanding play so far of juniors Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor, one of the reasons the Badgers will finish near the top of the conference standings and receive a solid (in the four to six range, at least) seed in the NCAA Tournament is the improvement demonstrated by sophomore center Brian Butch.

 

Butch was a 2003 McDonald's All-America who was red-shirted (to gain bulk and strength; he's supposedly gained 30 pounds since enrolling) in 2003-4 and averaged 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in a little less than 10 minutes a game last season.

 

Now those who've seen the Badgers play of late know why he was so heavily recruited (turning down the likes of North Carolina and Kansas to sign with Coach Bo Ryan).

 

He's averaging 11.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, with five assists in each of the team's past two games. Butch will be an All-America before he leaves Madison unless he does something hasty (aka, turn pro after this season).

 

*Hassan Adams of Arizona and Brandon Roy of Washington are as good of examples as can be found this season as to why most players are best served by maxing out their college eligibility before attempting to begin NBA careers.

 

The 6-4ish Adams and the 6-5ish Roy are the two best players in the Pacific 10 Conference, as their respective performances during the Wildcats' eventual 96-95 victory in Seattle bore out.

 

It was reminiscent of Gonzaga's 109-109, triple-overtime victory over Michigan State in the November EA Sports/Maui Invitational, a game in which the Bulldogs' Adam Morrison (43 points) and the Spartans' Maurice Ager (36) seemed to take turns trying to top – or at least equal – the other's individual offensive brilliance until the final horn.

 

The 3-pointer Roy hit to force the second overtime (he also dropped in one to put the game into the first OT), in which he split defenders Adams and Chris Rodgers, looked down to make sure his left foot was easily beyond the arc, then softly launched a one-handed shot that dropped through the nail ever-so-gently, was strictly out of the Book of Larry Bird.

 

It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Adams and Roy aren't shaking hands with David Stern on the next NBA Draft night.

 

*Louisville played just well enough to win by 15 points on the road Saturday against a Miami team that can be considered at least a mild disappoint so far.

 

But the other 10 victories came against considerably less imposing competition than the Hurricanes offered, with the one loss (to Kentucky) coming in decisive fashion against the only nationally ranked team the Cardinals have faced before this week.

 

But the Cardinals will step well up in class Thursday night when they play host to Scout.com's No. 3-ranked team, Villanova.

 

Louisville will have to exploit what appears to be an advantage in post play (with sophomores David Padgett and Juan Palacios) and keep the Wildcats' sensational collection of guards Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry from playing too free and easy if Rick Pitino's team is going to drop Jay Wright's club from the ranks of the unbeaten.

 

Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com


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