What A Knight!

Point guard Brandin Knight and head coach Ben Howland joined the program in 1999, along with top assistant coach Jamie Dixon, and made the Pitt men's basketball team competitive after just one season.

When Knight and Howland left after four seasons, the Panthers had captured two straight Big East West Division titles, opened play in the Petersen Events Center, and reached the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen twice.

Pittsburgh (14-0), among just four undefeated NCAA Division I-A teams, continued to improve its status under Dixon's watch. And in his sixth season as the head coach, the Panthers have reached the pinnacle of regular-season prowess. They are ranked No. 1 in the nation this week for the first time in the program's 101-year history.

But where does this year's team rate among Pitt's best?

"We've only played a third of the season, hopefully,'' Knight said. "To judge two games into the Big East, it's hard to tell. The biggest things for us are to just stay healthy and to continue to do some of the things that have gotten us to this point. So, to try to rank this team against some of the other ones, I say the same thing all the time. Just let these guys be them.

"This is not 2002. It's not 2003. It's not 2004. This is a new era. This is Sam Young, Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair. This is their era. Let them shine as they may. The comparisons, it's different. We can make them in the locker room, and it's fun to joke around. But at the same time, I don't talk about it with Levance. People always say for me to tell them about what I used to do.

"For what? I'm not playing anymore,'' Knight added, "and I want them to do greater things than we did. So, right now, it's not something we can judge. And it doesn't make them great, to be better than we were. What makes them great is that they continue to compete and play well throughout the season.''

Knight played in an NBA development league for two seasons after he graduated and led the Ashville Altitude to consecutive league titles. He spent time with the Houston Rockets in the NBA in 2005 and joined Pitt's coaching staff three seasons ago. He began as the video coordinator, was promoted to director of basketball operations and then to assistant coach.

He has seen the current program progress from its infancy to its current heights. Pitt has made seven straight NCAA appearances and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen four times with a school-record 31 wins in 2004, a Big East regular-season title and two Conference Tournament crowns.

The Panthers have held the No. 2 ranking on 16 different weekly occasions with the last one on December 11, 2006. Since January 7, 2002, Pitt has been ranked among the nation's top-25 in 117 of the previous 126 national polls. Additionally, Pitt has been ranked among the nation's top-10 teams in each of the last seven seasons (2002-08). So, finally reaching the top spot is special.

Just ask Knight, whose Pitt squad was poised to be No. 1 on two occasions. However, the Panthers lost 79-67 Dec. 31, 2002, at Georgia and and 67-65 Feb. 1, 2003, at Syracuse.

"We came close a couple times, but we just couldn't seem to put it together,'' Knight said. "We had two chances my senior year, and we lost both times. Once at Georgia and once at Syracuse. So, I think it's good for the program. It really doesn't mean anything in January, but I think it's good for recruiting.

"I think it's good that we'll get that national recognition, but at the same time we've got a tough opponent (St. John's) coming off a big win (against Notre Dame) against a top-10 opponent last week. So, we've just got to stay focused on ourselves and do what we've been doing to get to this point.''

Pitt faces St. John's, which beat Notre Dame, 71-65, this past Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Sunday at noon at the Petersen Events Center. And Young, a senior forward, had no problem rating his team going into this game.

"I think, this year, we have a lot more balance than we've had during any other season since I've been here,'' Young said. "We have a heady point guard in Levance Fields, a scorer (Young himself), rebounders (DeJuan Blair and Tyrell Biggs) and scoring from all over. We have an equal-balanced team with great players coming off the bench (Bradley Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown).

"They do a lot for our team, and when you try to scout us you might try to stop one person. But when you come out against us, you never know who's going to have a great game. So, I think it's hard to play us and hard to scout us. There's no way to know what we're going to do in any game.''

Knight believed that the Panthers also have the right attitude and demeanor to be successful during the remainder of their schedule, the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

"We play hard,'' Knight said. "We compete. We defend, and when things don't go well we stick together as a team. And I think that's the biggest thing. We've done it as a team at both ends of the floor.

"We get big games out of different guys on a regular (basis), and I think it's just a culmination of a couple different things that make us a good team. I think it's teamwork, defense, obviously, and I think those are the types of things that keep a team together and keep a team strong.''

So, surely Knight saw this level of success for the Pitt men's basketball program coming for a while now.

"I don't want to say that this is something that I couldn't imagine would happen,'' Knight said. "Every year, we've always had guys who compete and believe every day, and these are the results.

"Every program would like to be where we are now. But I just think that it's a lot that the coaches put in and a lot that the players put in, and I think this is the result. Now, we're starting to reap some of those benefits.''

And the No. 1 national ranking is just the beginning for this year's Panthers.

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