Late last season, trailing in the second half at Syracuse, several Pittsburgh players realized they had a chance to be distinctive in college basketball, a feeling guard Julius Page today described as "anything [being] possible if we keep our focus."
The Panthers were behind by 14 points about seven minutes into the second half, and Page's guard buddy Brandin Knight picked up on the scene: "We came into the huddle and made a commitment to press. That's something we don't work on. But because all of us were more mature we felt we could pull it off. And we ended up winning by 12."
That maturity is even more obvious this season -- and the No. 2 Panthers (14-1, 4-0) enter Saturday's Big East Conference game against Georgetown with only a slightly more elevated ranking than they had before the season. They claimed national titles in 1927-28 and 1929-30. But that was decades before polls started, so they never have been ranked No. 1.
"Of all the teams in the country I have a remote knowledge of, they have the most experience -- and good players," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said after an 13-point loss here a week ago.
The players and Coach Ben Howland have grown together over the last four seasons. All the starters and nine of the top 10 players returned this season. Knight and forward Donatas Zavackas have played together for four years. That pair and Page and forward Jaron Brown have played together for three years. Bulky center Ontario Lett started to become a force last season after transferring from a Florida junior college and moved Toree Morris to a backup.
"I see that experience paying off all the time," Page said. "In practice today, Brandin went for a steal, and I just knew automatically to go over for his man. It's a matter of knowing what your teammates are going to do, how they think. Then it's a matter of being able to react to it."
Howland also credits a lot of glass and girders, the new $96 million on-campus Petersen Events Center, with the dramatic improvement in Pittsburgh basketball. It was why he signed on in March 1999, after the Panthers had gone a combined 11-25 in the conference during the previous two seasons.
"Otherwise, it's not feasible to get the job done here," he said of the 12,500-seat arena that opened this season. "I think it's the nicest facility in the Northeast, although I haven't seen Maryland's yet."
Howland very quickly began impressing basketball insiders with his brand of defense and unselfish offense -- and the Panthers' 29 victories while advancing to the round of 16 of last season's NCAA tournament were a school record.
All the players know their roles, with Zavackas and Page the main outside threats, Lett and sophomore backup Chevon Troutman the primary inside players, Brown the defensive stopper and Knight the all-round talent that seems to make those around him better.
"They're better than the sum of their parts," Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick said.
Seven players have led the Panthers in scoring, and seven players, including Knight and backup point guard Carl Krauser, have led the team in rebounding. As a team, Pittsburgh has shot about 53 percent from the field and leads the league in field goal percentage and scoring defense.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Lett is 19 for 24 from the field and Troutman 22 for 30 in conference play, with Zavackas successful on 9 of 17 three-point tries. Knight has eight steals, and Brown limited Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony to 14 points, nine below his average. His tip-in with eight seconds left was the decisive play in the Panthers' one-point victory over Georgetown on the road last season.
Rebounding has been among the major positives for the Panthers. They average 12 more rebounds per game than their opponents. By contrast, Georgetown (10-4, 2-2) is averaging one fewer rebound per game than its opponents.
"We have a problem rebounding, and I [blame] that on myself," said 6-foot-11 Hoyas center Wesley Wilson, who has averaged just three rebounds in league play. "I need to improve -- and we'll be all right."
The Panthers are not without an Achilles' heel. With the exception of Zavackas, a 78 percent foul shooter, Pittsburgh struggles from the free throw line. Knight is particularly dreadful, missing 9 of 11 in league play and shooting 41.5 percent for the season. A point guard who cannot shoot free throws is a serious liability late in tight competition.
"In close games," Howland argues, "our guys do a better job of focusing. We made seven in a row [in a seven-point victory] at Rutgers. Most of our wins have been by at least 10 and our loss [to Georgia on the road Dec. 31] was by 12. But I'm confident."