Pitt keeps rolling as Steelers draw eyes

Originally Published: January 15, 2006
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Three questions into his postgame news conference in Freedom Hall, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon had a query of his own:

"What's the Steelers score?"

The Steelers score was the only score that truly mattered in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon, which is too bad for the Panthers. Rarely, if ever, has an undefeated team's road victory over a top-10 team been more obscured than this one.

Pitt's 61-57 comeback win over Louisville qualifies as "in other news" material in the Steel City today. It's well down the list behind Cowher Power, Big Ben, a blown interception call, a Bus breakdown and a butchered field goal. But for the 11 people in Pittsburgh who watched this basketball game, which tipped off at roughly the same time the Steelers-Colts playoff game kicked off, they saw a team performing admirably in near-total obscurity.

The Panthers are now 14-0, and this victory stamped them as more than just a product of cushy scheduling. The jury was very much out on a team that had left the city of Pittsburgh just once, for a milk run to South Carolina while the Gamecocks' student body was out of school.

That's why Pitt had risen no higher than No. 11 in the national rankings while the other two remaining unbeatens, Duke and Florida, were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. The voters had seen this movie before: a Panthers squad bolts out to a big unbeaten start (10-0 last year, 18-0 the year before, 9-0 the year before that) against a user-friendly schedule, then never brings it home in March.

These Panthers still have not earned the right to intrude upon Final Four speculation -- that's down the line. And it's true that young, gimpy Louisville remains the most overrated team in the country, with two homecourt losses and no signature victories to date.

"We keep losing at home, we're an NIT team," Rick Pitino said, and he's not crying wolf.

But while Louisville was undeserving of its top-10 ranking, Pitt is richly deserving of inheriting it. This game afforded the Panthers the right to be taken seriously until someone rises up and beats them.

"We showed how tough we are," said freshman guard Levance Fields, who fearlessly stuck five big jumpers and scored 13 points off the bench. "We have mental, physical toughness, guys that just want to win. We want to keep going on and on."

That toughness trait keeps going on and on in the Pittsburgh program. Give the Panthers credit for this much: The rugged, no-frills, defense-and-rebounding grinder approach implemented by Ben Howland has continued unbroken (and un-beautified) under Dixon.

Asked how big a part mental and physical toughness plays in Pitt's success, 24-year-old point guard Carl Krauser said, "It's about 90 percent of it."

"We all come from programs and organizations and coaches that teach us to play hard and compete," Krauser added. "We definitely don't rattle easily, and we're not scared. Not scared of anything."

They weren't scared of a seven-point deficit with 13 minutes to play in front of nearly 20,000 Louisville fans. Pitt got stops on its next two defensive stands, then methodically ripped holes in the Cardinals' mediocre 2-3 zone defense.

Pitt scored on 10 of its next 11 possessions. It worked inside to 7-foot center Aaron Gray, who scored on the block and passed deftly from the high post. Or the Panthers went outside and got key perimeter shots by Fields, Ronald Ramon and Krauser working off beefy screens. (Krauser's first three in that stretch, which tied the game at 43, came after he was floored by a forceful Taquan Dean forearm at the defensive end. A very Bronx response by the New York native.)

By the time that run was done, Pitt had gone from 39-32 down to 56-51 up. Still, Pitt had to weather three good 3-point looks by the Cardinals that would have given them the lead in the final 30 seconds before putting the game away with two free throws by Gray at :02.1.

"I'd missed a lot of my free throws," said Gray, who was 4-of-9 for the game. "But at that point I just said, 'Put 'em away.' "

Gray symbolizes Pitt's admirable ability over the past five seasons to plug in new parts and keep winning games. The program was supposed to take a dip when guards Brandin Knight and Julius Page left, but Jaron Brown and Ontario Lett and Chevon Troutman kept it going. Now, with Krauser seemingly in his ninth year for the Panthers, he's leading a new supporting cast.

Gray had scored 152 points in his first two years at Pitt. This year he's scored 183 in 14 games. He's averaging a double-double and recorded his ninth of the season (10 points, 12 rebounds) Sunday, well on his way to Big East Most Improved Player recognition. At game's end, Gray was sucking down every big rebound and beating weary Louisville center David Padgett for position repeatedly.

The big transformation has been in Gray's anatomy. He's shaved off 37 pounds from his peak weight of 305, enabling him to play longer and play better. Foul problems limited him to 24 minutes Sunday, but he was easily the freshest and most forceful big man at crunch time.

"I feel great," Gray said. "I knew I was coming out before because I couldn't get up and down the court. Now, one of the frustrating things is foul trouble. But I felt great at the end of the game."

Said Dixon: "He keeps getting better and better."

So does Dixon's freshman class. Fields, Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs all made important plays against Louisville, and they'll be followed by another strong recruiting class next year -- keeping Pitt's continuity alive.

There's no need to wait until next season, though, to be excited about this program. The remaining Big East schedule is not terribly daunting: The Panthers get Providence and Marquette among their three home-and-home opponents, and they don't have to go to Syracuse or Cincinnati. It's not impossible to envision Pitt at 18-0 heading into a game at Connecticut on Jan. 31.

Of course, by then the Steelers could be heading to the Super Bowl. So it might take the Panthers until the second week of February to earn much honor in their hometown.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.