Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™
January 11, 2002
Panthers in Pre-Season
By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service
PITTSBURGH (IE) – Looking for validation that Pittsburgh is for real?
Mike Brey picked the Panthers ahead of Notre Dame in the pre-season Big East Conference poll.
"Yes I did," the Irish head coach told IrishEyes Friday. "I thought because how they finished in the Big East Tournament last year, what they had back, and the age of their guys, I thought they had a shot to be very, very good."
With the possible exception of Indiana in Bloomington, Notre Dame faces its toughest test of the year Saturday night at sold-out Fitzgerald Field House against 15-1 and No. 25 Pittsburgh. It is a critical early season game for the Irish as the teams jockey for position in the West Division of the Big East.
Pittsburgh is already 3-0 in the conference. With a victory the Panthers would move two and one-half games ahead of the defending West Division champion Irish. That deficit could expand on Monday when Notre Dame visits No. 8 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
"It's really early, but this is a huge game," said Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland, who provided a construction tour of the state-of-the-art 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center Thursday. "Everything's going in the right direction for the program, and winning this game would another positive step."
The Panthers' new building opens next season, but this could be the year for Pittsburgh in reviving its NCAA Tournament hopes, at least according to Brey.
"We beat a pretty good twice in the regular season last year, and then they jumped on us on the Big East Tournament," said Brey, whose team practiced at the Joyce Center Friday afternoon before jetting here. "I like their personnel, they've adapted to Ben's style of play and they believe in it. I'm not surprised how they are playing right now. They're a quality team."
And the Panthers have the toughest point guard that Chris Thomas will have faced to date, the smooth Brandin Knight.
"I would agree with that," said Brey. "Knight is a man, he's confident, he's learned how to win. We tried to recruit him at Delaware, because other people weren't on him when he was at Seton Hall Prep. That was surprising, considering how his brother (Brevin) just went through the roof in developing at Stanford. And now Brandin is following the same upward curve. He's a terrific player."
Knight is averaging 16 points and six assists a game, leading a backcourt that also features sophomore Julius Page (9.7 points, terrific defense) and 6-4 wide body Jaron Brown (10.4 points).
"Honestly, it's going to be difficult for our shooters to get out fast because of the intensity Pittsburgh will probably play with early," said Brey. "So we need to play smart and take care of every possession."
Against a guard-oriented team like Pittsburgh, it's important for Notre Dame not to fall into an early hole. The Panthers, at home, will not be as gracious in turning the ball over as West Virginia was on Wednesday. So the Irish need the defensive presence of Torrian Jones on the perimeter.
"Torrian's a guy who has gives us an athletic presence, but it's what the evening dictates," said Brey. "If we are down 15 at half, it's pretty evident you're going to have to score points to get back in it and Torrian is not that type of player. His role is to defend, and he has embraced that role."
Brey also praised sophomore reserve point guard Chris Markwood who played six minutes in the first-half at Morgantown and had "our two best post feeds of the night."
The coach would prefer to see a more balanced half-to-half effort from the Irish but joked his team's schizophrenic play is all part of the plan.
"When they hired me they told me here they told me Notre Dame was comebacks and drama," he laughed. "I'm only doing what they told me to do. Winning at halftime is not on the priority list."
THE NOTEBOOK: Pittsburgh has not had a winning record in Big East play since 1996-97 (10-8) and has had only five seasons where it played better than .500 ball in Conference play since 1983. The Panthers are just 17-18 the past four-plus seasons at Fitzgerald Field House, a facility that IrishEyes is going to miss. It's dark, damp and lacks amenities, but it's a perfect setting for college basketball with the fans right on the floor. It's a throwback gym and with its passing, only St. John's Alumni Gym in Jamaica, Queens remains as Places with Character in the Conference. Fitzgerald will remain the venue for Pittsburgh's other Olympic sports…Notre Dame will fly to Syracuse Sunday morning for a quick turnaround Monday night contest against the Orangemen. Last year Notre Dame thrived when facing with two games in three days, going 6-2. It defeated Rutgers and lost at Seton Hall on Jan. 6 and 8, swept West Virginia and Syracuse at home on Jan. 21 and 23, swept Pittsburgh and St. John's on Feb. 3 and 5, and then split with Virginia Tech and Connecticut on Feb. 24 and 26. The Irish rarely played twice in three days under John MacLeod, primarily because the program was not of a contending stature and did not earn regular ESPN coverage. Monday's game is on the cable giant. The Kentucky-Georgetown doubledip next week was scheduled to accommodate CBS and ESPN...Notre Dame's 75-59 loss to Pittsburgh in the first round of the Big East Tournament last year was easily the worst Irish effort under Brey. The Irish were a disinterested lot on that night, and it was troubling to watch Troy Murphy play without passion...Brey on Friday said that Thomas is a "much more active cheerleader" for Notre Dame than Murphy. "For whatever reason, Troy didn't want to get involved in stuff like that (recruiting)," said Brey. "Chris is perfectly suited for it.".
(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)