Pitt Should Be No. 1 Again

A new No. 1 men's basketball team will be crowned Monday afternoon, and there's no question it should be the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.

Pittsburgh, which was No. 4 this week, pounded No. 1 Connecticut into submission Monday in Hartford, Conn. and then hammered DePaul at home Saturday night. The Panthers were rated No. 1 for two weeks earlier this year.

Before the Panthers played Saturday night, unheralded Maryland knocked off No. 3 North Carolina at home. Later that night, No. 2 Oklahoma was dumped by rival Texas, which also is unranked. Therefore, Pitt will jump to the top spot in the Associated Press (writers') poll and ESPN-USA Today (coaches') poll.

And the Panthers, 25-2 overall and 12-2 in the Big East -- by far college basketball's best conference -- should be a unanimous No. 1 for the first time. There are many reasons, the least being that no other NCAA Division I-A team has a better record than Pitt.

"The Pitt program has been built on guys progressing throughout their careers like Sam Young, Tyrell Biggs, Levance Fields ... if I wanted to be like any other program in America it would be Pitt,'' veteran DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright said, "because there's a progression and a togetherness here.

"It started with Coach Howland and has continued with Coach Dixon. It's the template for college basketball. NBA players are developed. Sure, you get a great recruit like DeJuan Blair. ... He's a special player. I think somebody put him together in a lab somewhere. (But) this team fits very well together.''

The Panthers, as sixth-year coach Jamie Dixon has said continually this year, are ranked No. 1 in the ratings percentage index (RPI) -- and they have been nearly all this season -- and have a strength of schedule (SOS) rating at No. 12. The latter number was much higher early this season before the Big East teams started knocking each other off.

Pitt has beaten four teams in the RealTime RPI top 25, and its two losses were to the No. 11 (Villanova) and No. 12 (Louisville) RPI teams on the road. The Cardinals were ranked seventh in the recent AP poll, while Nova was 12th.

So, the Panthers have had many big wins and two tough losses, but neither was a bad loss. The other pretenders for the No. 1 crown have lost to unranked teams. That means Pitt deserves the top spot on every voter's ballot.

Senior forward Young leads the Panthers with 18 points per game, while senior point guard Fields leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and is second in assists per game. Blair leads the nation in offensive rebounds and is among the leaders in total boards. And the sophomore center believes Pitt will be hard to beat throughout the remaining games this season.

"You need to have confidence to be successful at this level,'' Blair said. "When we're playing team ball, we're tough to beat. ... And I'm confident in this team. We can go to Detroit (for the Final Four) and win a lot of things this year. We just have to keep playing, and everything's going to come our way.''

Supporting players are junior guard Jermaine Dixon and senior forward Tyrell Biggs among the starters, while sophomore guard Bradley Wanamaker, redshirt sophomore forward Gilbert Brown, sophomore center Gary McGhee and freshmen guard Ashton Gibbs and forward Nasir Robinson come off the bench.

Memphis, Michigan State and Louisville also are in the running, but the Tigers are 24-3 with an SOS at No. 43. The Spartans are 20-5, three more losses, but are No. 4 in SOS. And the Cardinals are 21-5 with three more losses even though they beat Pitt earlier this season.

The Panthers should maintain that status this week as well with Big East games at Providence Tuesday and Seton Hall Saturday before closing with regular-season Conference games against No. 10 Marquette (March 4) and Connecticut (March 7) at the Petersen Events Center.

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