No team enters the Big East season hotter than the undefeated Panthers, who begin conference play as one of only three unbeatens in the league (joining Connecticut and Villanova). And for all the usual talk about the cupcakes always available on Pittsburgh's campus during basketball season, two of the victories were a road win at South Carolina and a 73-64 beating of then-No. 22 Wisconsin.
This is one of the deeper Panther teams in recent memory with freshmen taking on key roles. It's also a better ballhandling team. With Ronald Ramon and Carl Krauser starting, there are usually two Panthers on the court capable of bringing the ball upcourt or breaking down a defender.
The schedule may benefit the Panthers as well. Of the eight road games in league play, three are against Louisville, UConn and West Virginia -- Final Four contenders. But the other five are against teams that failed to make the NCAAs last season.
--The Panthers depth was a big question mark entering the season, but the emergence of its freshman class as immediate contributors has left the team able to survive foul trouble and nagging injuries. In the team's victory over Wisconsin, the Panthers got only 33 minutes, 11 points and eight rebounds from starting frontcourt Levon Kendall and Aaron Gray, but won because freshmen Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs carried the load underneath.
--Pitt has a reputation of playing relatively weak non-conference schedules. However, this is only the second time in school history the Panthers have finished the season undefeated in nonleague play -- the team went 14-0 in 2003-04.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We don't look at ourselves as freshmen. We are ballplayers. We're competitors. We want to compete and win just like everybody else. Others from the outside look at us like freshmen, but we don't. We're just out there doing our best trying to win basketball games." -
- Freshman F Sam Young after the Panthers victory over Wisconsin, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- G Carl Krauser, G Ronald Ramon, F John DeGroat, F Levon Kendall, C Aaron Gray. Key Subs -- G Levance Fields, G Antonio Graves, F Sam Young, G Keith Benjamin, F Tyrell Biggs.
Pittsburgh 77, Coppin State 51
Pittsburgh 58, South Carolina 51
Pittsburgh 73, Wisconsin 64
vs. Notre Dame, Wednesday, Jan. 4.
vs. DePaul, Tuesday, Jan. 12.
at Louisville, Sunday, Jan. 15.
KEYS: The Panthers have surprised detractors in nonconference play and have a reasonable start to the Big East schedule with home games against Notre Dame and DePaul. If the backcourt can continue to knock down shots and the frontcourt continues to corral the misses, the Panthers could keep the positive vibes going well into the teeth of the conference schedule.
--F Sam Young tied a career high against Wisconsin with 16 points. He'd set the mark in the team's previous game against South Carolina, and the freshman is poised to be a key factor in the Panthers plans for Big East play.
--G Carl Krauser came back to the team in a different role -- he's more of a shooter than a ballhandler this season. It's paid off on the scoreboard, with Krauser scoring more than 20 points in five of the team's first 11 games.