'Pre-Season' Over for Dixon's Panthers

PITTSBURGH - For Pitt, the preseason is over - even if all the games have counted until now. St. Francis, Coppin State and Maine are gone and, as of now, there is only one more losing-record team to play all season.

The Panthers are 9-0 for the fourth consecutive season and the third in a row under coach Jamie Dixon, but they still don't know much about themselves because they have yet to be tested. A year ago, a much more experienced Pitt team coasted through a similar lightweight schedule in November and December, but then won only 10 of its final 19 games when the competition got better.

Carl Krauser, one of the few veteran faces on this Pitt team, is promising there won't be a similar falloff this season. Asked if games at South Carolina (7-3) on Wednesday and No. 24 Wisconsin (9-1) at home Saturday night will prove how good these Panthers are, he said, "I already know we're for real."

Dixon isn't ready yet to make such an assessment, if only because the Gamecocks and Badgers should provide better competition than the Panthers customarily face before they start Big East play in early January.

Despite Pitt's record, the Panthers remained outside the AP Top 25, ranking second among the teams also receiving points. This Pitt team, unlike Dixon's first two teams, did not begin the season in the Top 25 after center Chris Taft left for the NBA after two seasons and forward Chevy Troutman graduated.

"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," said Dixon, whose team resumed practicing Sunday night after being off for three days. "You can't be much better than 9-0. We haven't played Duke, but 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."

Only two Pitt opponents to date have winning records, so it's difficult to assess how much 7-foot starting center Aaron Gray, freshmen Levance Fields and Sam Young, and power forward Levon Kendall - four players who will be heavily counted upon in the Big East - are progressing.

Krauser is averaging a team-high 17 points, while Gray has averages of 13 points and 10.4 rebounds. With the playing time being spread among 10 players to date, Kendall averages 7.9 points, Young 6.4 and Fields 6.1.

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

South Carolina will be Pitt's first road opponent outside of Pittsburgh. To date, the Panthers' only game outside of the Petersen Events Center was against city rival Duquesne. Last year, Pitt didn't leave town in December except to play at Penn State, but lost at home to Bucknell following a 10-0 start.

"Playing on the road is just going to make us closer," Krauser said. "So, y'all guys can look forward to (a) win down there at South Carolina."

South Carolina didn't play in the NCAA tournament last season, but won the NIT. To date, the Gamecocks have lost their only games against major college opponents: Marquette (92-89), Clemson (82-63) and Temple (63-50).

"We're definitely excited," Kendall said. "We've done our best to stay up and motivated for these games. We want to prove to ourselves and show people what we can do. We're pretty confident about it. We get to go down to South Carolina, see what we can do, maybe surprise some people or show them what we're made of."

Gray has done a more than adequate job of replacing Taft to date, and he thinks he's ready to move up to the improved competition.

"I think all the guys are ready for it," Gray said. "I think it will be a good test."

To Gray, Pitt's youngest team in five years came together weeks ago.

"We prove it to ourselves every day in practice," he said. "The games are just a chance to come out and prove it."


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