Pitt-Oakland, Mich. Preview

When the Pitt men's basketball team received the No. 3 seed in the West Region for this year's NCAA Tournament and got its first-round matchup, many Panthers never heard of the Oakland Golden Grizzlies and certainly didn't know the Summit League champions were located in Michigan.

After several days spent practicing and watching film on Oakland (26-8), Pittsburgh (24-8) is ready for its opening game today at 2:55 p.m. at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisc. or 30 minutes following the conclusion of the Xavier-Minnesota game. All games will be broadcast nationally by CBS-TV.

"I know a lot more about Oakland now,'' Pitt freshman center Dante Taylor said. "I know they have a real good big man inside who's 6-11, and they're an aggressive team with the way their guards play. I also know where Oakland's located, because I didn't know that when I first saw that we were playing them.

"And we all know that we have to come out strong and take it to them right away. We don't want to let them stay in the game and think they can upset us. The quicker we can put them away, the better it will be. And I'm looking forward to being part of that.''

Taylor noted that Oakland appears to go to its big man 6-foot-11 center Keith Benson, who averages 17 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. But Taylor added that while Benson doesn't play too physically, compared to Big East centers, he can be tough to handle due to his length and long arms.

"And on offense, he's not afraid to step out and hit a shot from 15-17 feet away from the hoop,'' Taylor said. So, he and junior center Gary McGhee will be charged with keeping Benson in check.

"Their big guy had some good games against some of the better teams on their schedule,'' McGhee said. "They played Kansas and Syracuse and Michigan State, and he did all right against those guys. He had some pretty good games. He has a nice jump shot.

"He moves pretty good for a long guy, about 6-11, but we've faced players by him before. I don't think he's that physical, but he's tall with long arms, so you have to be aware of that. And I'm going to crash the offensive glass and work him hard at both ends of the court to wear him down as much as possible.''

Pitt sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs believed that Benson wasn't the only offensive threat for Oakland. Point guard Johnathon Jones and wing player Derick Nelson also can fill the hoop. Nelson had 36 points for the Golden Grizzlies in the Summit League Tournament title game.

"They feed off their big man, but their guards can create other options for them,'' Gibbs said. "So, they're just a well-balanced team. But it's a good matchup for us, and I'm looking forward to it. We've been doubted this whole season, but we always took it as motivation.

"And it's no different now for us. We know Oakland is looking for that big upset, but it's our job to put them away as early as possible to make sure they don't accomplish that goal. Everybody is very confident in our locker room, and we can't wait to get back on the court.''

After what Notre Dame did to Pitt in two late-season victories, including their quarterfinal matchup at the Big East Tournament, some might believe it would behoove Oakland coach Greg Kampe to slow the game tempo to keep the Panthers off-balance. However, the 26-year veteran coach said that he won't change his game plan for anything.

"We were leading the game by 11 points in the first half while taking shots late in every possession (and held a four-point halftime lead),'' Kampe said. "But I don't think I'll do that this time around, because that's not how we play. Now, don't hold me to that if we're close with five minutes left.''

While that gesture might be showing Pitt some respect, it appears to say more about the Golden Grizzlies and their offensive talent. Oakland is a bit more balanced and versatile than the past few years under Kampe.

"They're a very good team, and we watched a lot of film on them already,'' Pitt junior guard Bradley Wanamaker said. "They get up and down a little bit and try to get into one-on-one matchups. They also have a real good big man, a 6-11 guy, that they try to get the ball to as much as possible.

"They also have played a lot of good teams. Kansas, Syracuse, at Michigan State. So, they played some pretty good teams and hung with them, for the most part, so they can play. We just have to be ready for anything from them and try to make them play our game.''

Wanamaker and senior guard Jermaine Dixon could be asked to be the primary defenders on Nelson, a fifth-year senior who is 6-5 and about 240 pounds. And Pitt redshirt junior Gilbert Brown knows even more about him.

"Derick Nelson, he's a good, solid wing player,'' Brown said. "He's a good player, and he actually played in my high school league when I was a junior. So, I remember him from back then, too. And their big man, Benson, he's very active inside. So, they'll give us two good matchups.''

Still, Brown believed that Oakland will provide a good matchup for the Panthers, and that they will prevail against the lower-seeded Golden Grizzlies.

"The main way to avoid an upset is to set the tempo and maintain that intensity level,'' Brown said. "A lot of teams that come in with the underdog mentality try to set the tempo and take the game to the other team. We can't let that happen.

"As long as we establish ourselves early in the game, we'll be fine. And we should be able to beat Oakland. I think being picked ninth in the Big East and not even picked to make the NCAA Tournament, that really lit a fire under this team. And we're going to carry that with us.''

It just remains to be seen how long Pitt can carry it.

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