December Perfection in Danger?

Nine straight victories, that has placed the program back into the Top 25, has the Panther basketball team soaring heading into a short Christmas break. The break, which sees the team get a week off before arguably their toughest games to date, is a welcome sight to Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon.

"We haven't had a lot of 3 or 4 days off so far," coach Jamie Dixon said. "It's a good opportunity to get some rest and comeback with plenty of energy and determination. I think it's going to be a good thing and we'll be ready to go when we return to practice."

The Panthers have won 25 straight December contests, a streak that could be in jeopardy next week when the Panthers head to Columbia (SC) to face the Gamecocks of South Carolina on the 28th and back home to face Big Ten foe, Wisconsin on the 31st.

"Expectations are lower and that's obvious when we've lost as many guys as we have but I've seen a dramatic improvement from our guys, you can't be much better than 9-0," Dixon said. "We've played some good teams that have good RPIs and we've played well throughout and that's the biggest thing that sticks out in my mind."

After the Gamecocks on Wednesday, Pitt will enter a nice 13-day home stretch that will offer the nation a chance to see the up-and-coming Panthers - up close and person. In addition to the Notre Dame and Wisconsin games scheduled to be broadcasted on Fox Sports Net, their Jan. 12th matchup against DePaul will be televised nationally on ESPN.

But first up before the three-game home-stand is a trip to Columbia (SC).

"Traveling down to South Carolina is going to be a big test for us," senior guard Carl Krauser said "Its going to really show how committed we are as a team and how we enjoy playing with each other on the court."

Having already trounced an SEC opponent this year in Auburn earlier this season, the Panthers should be sky high when they take on the Gamecocks this Wednesday.

South Carolina (7-3) heads into the game coming off a 63-50 loss to Temple just 3 days ago. Their wins this season have come against the likes of Toledo, Western Carolina, Alaska-Anchorage, Monmouth, UNC-Greensboro, Winthrop and Wofford. To their credit, the majority of their games, however, have been on the road.

"One of the biggest things about going out on the road is that you have to provide all the energy yourself," junior center Aaron Gray said. "You don't have a fan base where if your doing something good they're going crazy, when you make spectacular plays on the road it gets quiet."

"I think all these guys are ready for it and its going to be a good test."

The Gamecocks three losses - Clemson, Temple and Marquette - have been by an average of 11 points. A 19 points spanking by in-state rival, Clemson, being by far their worst loss of the season.

The Panthers, on the other hand, have used a below average schedule to prepare them for 'the real season,' a reference to playing in arguably the nation's toughest basketball conference, the Big East. Still, critics have questioned whether Pitt's early season schedule has prepared them.

"I think its funny cause all you guys ask if we've proved ourselves," Gray said, "but we prove it to ourselves everyday in practice. Each game is a chance where we can come out and prove it to you guys."

The Big East portion of Pitt's schedule starts January 4th against Notre Dame.

Pitt's early season showing has certainly given fans a reason for optimism despite the tough conference slate of games to come. Carl Krauser has returned to the Panthers for his season and has yet to disappoint, averaging 16.2 points a game and 5 rebounds a contest. Junior 7-footer, Aaron Gray has been outstanding in the paint, averaging over 12 points a contest and pulling down 9.9 rebounds. His scoring ability has been a tremendous lift, again, this year.

Not to be forgotten are the young-guns in freshmen Sam Young and Levance Fields, as well as super sophomore Ronald Ramon. Despite averaging only 16 minutes a contest, Young is averaging 7.4 points a game, fourth best on the team. Fields and Ramon have been consistent in averaging 19 minutes a game and contributing close to 6 points a game. Both are second and third in assists with 2.5 a game.

Most impressive about Pitt's early season success is they've managed to get an abundance of players early playing time. 10 players are averaging 13 or more minutes of game action. Antonio Graves and Keith Benjamin, key factors in last season's team, are middle of the pack in minutes, somewhat of a surprise.

"We've done a good job of improving consistently all the way from the freshmen to the seniors," Levon Kendall said following Pitt's victory over Coppin State. "The coaches do not let us get caught up in winning."

So how far will Pitt go unblemished?

In the end, the success will probably come down to Krauser, who in addition to points and rebounds, also leads the team in assists, steals and assist to turnover ratio.

"You see teams like Duke playing well but at the same time we're another team in the Big East that's working hard we're giving great efforts on and off the court, just being solid student athletes," Krauser stated. "We're just going to try to stay on the path."

That path gets a little tougher on Wednesday.

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