As a novice college basketball analyst, Knight might have said something more outrageous than just about anything that occurred during his coaching career when he picked the Pitt men's basketball team to win the NCAA Tournament.
Since he coached primarily in the Big Ten at Indiana and recently in the Big 12 at Texas Tech, Knight probably hasn't seen Pittsburgh (26-9) too often, but he watched the Panthers claw their way to the Big East Tournament title with four wins in four days and believed that success would continue in the NCAAs with Oral Roberts (24-8) Thursday at 3 p.m. at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.
"I don't really follow too much of that stuff, but there's not too many guys on those shows who won (three) national championships,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Tuesday, shortly before the Panthers left the Petersen Events Center for their NCAA flight. "There's a lot of people talking about it and calling us to tell us about it, but I do take it as a sign of respect. And I appreciate that.
"He liked how we played, so I took it that way. I think, as a coach, he was impressed by our resiliency in getting through the injuries. A coach understands that, what it takes to get through losing three guys for the season and another for eight weeks, so ... I think that has a lot to do with what he said.''
Pitt senior guard Keith Benjamin is making his fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and he also showed a great deal of respect for Knight.
"He's a great guy, a lot of wins, and he's one of the great coaches who has done it all before,'' Benjamin said. "He's not just an analyst. He's somebody who has actually been a part of this sport and the history of this sport, the Hall of Fame and all, so ... for him to go out on a limb to say that, it means a lot to us. We just want to go out and try to make his words come true.''
Pitt junior point guard Levance Fields didn't put much stock in Knight's comments, but he can understand why they were said.
"Obviously, he saw us play four games and saw what we're capable of doing,'' Fields said. "A lot of people saw that now, but that's the best thing about the Big East Tournament. Every game is on ESPN, so the nation was watching. And I think we performed as well as any team during championship week. We just have to continue that during the NCAA Tournament.
"I feel that we're on a good roll and playing as well as we were at the beginning of the year. We're doing what we need to do, now that we can practice and get ready for games, things that we weren't able to do with all the injuries. So, now, being back and all the way healthy, it's showing up in the games.''
So far, Knight is the only national analyst picking Pitt to make a long NCAA Tournament run, let alone win the national title, but Benjamin believed the Panthers proved they have what it takes to do that.
"I really believe that we're a team that's built for the tournament,'' Benjamin said. "We've just got guys, there's no jitters or anything like that. We just look at each other, and we know what we've got to do. Nobody's scared, and nobody cares who we play. Everybody wants to play the best teams in the country.
"In the past, we might have had some better teams. But when it comes down to having five skilled players, I think we have that here. And like I've said before, everybody on this team has the heart to go do it. You've got to sense it. We've won the past seven of eight, and we have a five-game winning streak.''
Fields was quick to agree with his teammate's assessment.
"I think we have everything it takes to have a deep run,'' Fields said. "We have the inside play with DeJuan (Blair) and Sam (Young), an athletic wing in Keith, the shooter with Ron (Ramon), and we have the ball-control leader in myself.
"We also have a great bench with Gilbert (Brown) and Tyrell (Biggs), and some young guys like Brad (Wanamaker) and Gary (McGhee) ready to come in. So, as long as we focus and concentrate on what we need to do, we'll be all right.''
But can the Panthers finally get past the Sweet Sixteen this year?
"We have to get past Oral Roberts first,'' Fields said. "I'd love to answer that question, but Oral Roberts is the only thing on our minds right now. We'll deal with them and then take things from there.''
If Pitt beats the Golden Eagles in the first round, it plays either Michigan State or Temple Saturday at approximately 6:30 or 9 p.m. Eastern.
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