Beating Bruins Could Define Panthers Program

PITTSBURGH -- Fifth-year senior Levon Kendall is the only player who was on the team when former University of Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland left to take over at UCLA, but former point guard Brandin Knight is all too familiar with Howland, as well as the Bruins, since he's been breaking down film the past two days as Pitt's video coordinator.

The Panthers (29-7) face UCLA (28-5) in the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament Thursday night at 9:40 at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

"It's been 4-5 years removed from Coach Howland,'' Knight said. "As far as the coaching staff goes, me and Jamie, I played for him and Jamie coached with him. So, we were around him the most. With the exception of Levon, nobody else was around when he was here. But we have a very similar style to UCLA and what we're trying to get done.

"So, it's going to be very interesting to see who outwits who. UCLA likes to think it's an up-tempo, transition team right now. I guess you could compare them to Georgetown, just from a standpoint of just being patient and with the defensive end being stressed heavily and controlling the tempo. So, I would say they're a little like Georgetown.''

Coach Jamie Dixon said he talks to Howland nearly every day, and the two left messages for each other the past couple days.

"I actually thought (this matchup) happened already since it's been talked about for so many years now,'' Dixon said. "So, every time the brackets come out, it's been discussed. ... But it's just something that was inevitable. We always said that we weren't going to play against each other in the regular season, so it could only happen in the NCAA.''

This game is a chance for Pitt to shake a stigma that it's had during the past seven years, that it can't win the big games. The Panthers have made six Big East title games with one championship in the past seven years and are fifth in winning percentage among NCAA Division I-A teams the past six years, but they lost in three Sweet Sixteen games.

"The biggest thing for me in this game is just the pride of the programs,'' Pitt junior forward Keith Benjamin said. "Pitt is trying to make itself known as one of the elites, and we've been getting it down on the wins and losses side. But we haven't solidified ourselves as a team that can get over that hump and win a big-time game. So, that's what it's all about.

"UCLA, everybody picks them to go back to the Final Four, so they have to go out there and protect what everybody has faith in them doing. But we're definitely trying to take that next step. ... Everybody's pushing for us to do it. We play against the older guys all summer long, and they always say that they were better than us. Now, we can do something better than them against probably a better team than they played in the Sweet Sixteen.''

Benjamin ran through a lengthy player list from Pitt's past like former point guard Brandin Knight, now the team's video coordinator, guards Julius Page and Carl Krauser and forwards Jaron Brown and Ontario Lett and said the Panthers are playing better than all of their teams right now. Even though Pitt blew two big leads in the opening two rounds, Benjamin believed the Panthers finally hit their stride as a team.

Dixon believed the Panthers played about 75 minutes of great basketball in Buffalo, N.Y. and only had a bad stretch of 5-7 minutes.

"We outscored a good Wright State team by over 20 and outscored a very good Virginia Commonwealth team by 19,'' Dixon said. "So, some people will point to that 5-minute stretch, but I'll let you guys make the distinction.''

Knight believed there were more similarities than differences between Pitt and UCLA and maybe the first team to 50 points will win.

"I think whichever team is able to sustain the pace and sustain the tempo for the longest period of time is going to win,'' Knight said. "I don't think one guy on our team has a significant advantage on anyone on their team or on there team, either.

"The stars are going to have to shine on their team, and they're going to have to shine on our team. And whoever performs better is going to win. But both teams play good defense, and they try to control the game. So, that's what we're looking to do.''

Notes: Mike Cook didn't practice Monday, because his knee was a little bruised and swollen. However, he should be ready to go Tuesday. ... Aaron Gray did not have any aftereffects from the food poisoning he had Saturday night. He practiced. ... Dixon said Pitt is the healthiest they've been all year.

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