Not your average king of the cupcakes

There are already thirteen reasons to have hope that this season's Pittsburgh Panther squad is better than the two previous squads. There are also thirteen reasons to believe that this squad may not wind up playing for the Big East Championship for a fourth straight season.

The Panthers are in the midst of a ridiculously easy non-conference schedule. They finish out with a visit from William & Mary. They will be 14 – 0. They should be 14 – 0. If they weren't going to be 14 – 0 when Big East play starts then perhaps the team and its fans would have had reason to worry before the conference schedule begins.

Still, regardless of the easy schedule, the team, sans a scare from Georgetown College, has whipped the tails off of the competition. The most recent display was the 21-point shellacking of the Georgia Bulldogs, who were then 7 – 2. Regardless of whether the Bulldogs are really a viable threat in the SEC this season, they were 7 – 2 and had taken Gonzaga, every reporter's favorite underdog, to the wire in a losing effort.

After getting off to a bad start, the Panthers instead beat down and wore out a Bulldog team while bereft of a major scoring threat. This type of grueling, hard-nosed play is what sets apart the Pittsburgh program from those of other universities. And unless opposing teams are ready to play a full 40 minutes at the same commitment level, they'll share the same fate as Georgia.

"After the first 10 minutes, we went soft and allowed Pittsburgh to step up," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "Their defense is very blue-collar and hard working."

You'll notice, Felton didn't say talented. He said "blue-collar" and "hard working." Adjectives like that seem to follow the Panthers everywhere. Yet, "talented" isn't one of them. In fact, not one Panther made CBS's rankings of the top players at each position.

But, sooner or later, the country will have to take notice of a sophomore forward with limiting playing time coming off the bench to score a team & season-high 28 points; an untested freshman picking up the pieces after the starting point guard is out with injury; a team that finds a way to win when its best all-around player who led the team down the stretch last season has yet to find his scoring touch.

Deep, rich and talented is the bench that Jamie Dixon manages. Deep enough that Mark McCarroll is the premiere scoring threat in the paint. Rich enough that Antonio Graves can play relatively error free ball at the point. And talented enough that Jaron Brown can be having a poor shooting year and no one seems to notice.

When the Panthers head out into the unknown territory of Big East play, they will be 14 – 0, courtesy of a cupcake non-conference schedule. Will the rest of the schedule be just as sweet, or sour instead? Alabama, the first victim, upset 15th ranked Wisconsin who, with Illinois, has owned the Big Ten the past few years. People also tend to forget that Alabama was ranked #1 in the country at one point last season.

Florida State, because of its quick opening, has landed in the top 25 even after its loss last week at the Petersen Center. They also have the #1 rated freshman class this season, another factor folks tend to forget.

And finally the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia, who are a shell of last year's squad but are still 7 – 2…er…I mean 7 – 3. All three of the teams and Murray State could see the NCAA tournament. And if they all do, is the schedule nearly as cupcake as it initially appeared to be?

Other teams have fallen to the little guy, including Syracuse, Duke, Connecticut and a host of others. But Pitt to its credit hasn't, and in the process has found its bench to be deep, its defense to be sound and its confidence at an all-time high.

Now if the Panthers can just fix that pesky free throw percentage…

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