Despite emotion of day, Panthers live up to billing
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Five minutes remained in the game when Western Michigan assistant Cornell Mann turned to Broncos head coach Steve Hawkins and asked him if he had ever seen an offensive performance like Pitt's on Sunday.
"I said 'Yes, two years ago when I went to watch Illinois at Michigan State,' " Hawkins said after the No. 5 Pitt Panthers put on an offensive clinic in an 86-67 victory over the Broncos here in the inaugural Maggie Dixon Classic, an event held to honor Pitt coach Jamie Dixon's sister, the Army women's coach who tragically died of a heart ailment at 28 on April 6.
"They remind me of Illinois," Hawkins said. "Nothing against Carl Krauser, but I haven't seen [Pitt] share the ball as well as they did. They are very good offensively."
The Illinois comparison isn't far off. It might not be true in style of play, since the Panthers aren't guard-dominated and, at times, depending on the lineup, are speed-challenged. But the eventual destination of those Illini -- the national title game -- definitely looks realistic for as much as you can read into Sunday's opening-game undressing of the Broncos.
Hawkins was trying to be polite, but the reality is that Krauser's absence hasn't hurt this squad one bit. The former point guard, famously known in college hoops for his Bronx-honoring, arm-crossing "X" after every 3-pointer, wasn't selfish, but for whatever reason, the Panthers are much more balanced without him.
Having Aaron Gray, the behemoth in the middle, back after flirting with the NBA draft, does make a big difference. Gray, who finished with 10 points, 13 boards and two blocks, opens up an inordinate amount of shots for the rest of the Panthers. Case in point: The Panthers were 5-of-9 on 3s in the first half, and guard Ronald Ramon finished 5-of-6 from beyond the arc.
"[Gray] makes plays for us and keeps everyone open," Ramon said.
"We had five or six guys in double figures. We shot the ball well from the field. We've got so much talent on this team," Gray said.
That's right; Dixon had those four coming off the pine, with Gray joined by Levon Kendall, Levance Fields, Antonio Graves and East Carolina transfer Mike Cook in the starting lineup. Cook stamped his Pitt debut by leading the Panthers in scoring with 17 points, getting out on the break and finishing with ease.
Gray said the Panthers now have a true small forward in Cook, something he said they had to force with a shooting guard or a power forward in the past. Cook said he was anxious to start, but felt comfortable once he was out and running.
"Our second team is just as good as our first," Gray said.
The starting lineup is hardly set in stone. Assistant Orlando Antigua said the depth on this squad and the competition for starting spots has created a much more intense atmosphere. Yet, no one seems to mind who is getting the first nod, since there is an understanding they will all get significant run.
"We have great chemistry, on and off the court," said Ramon. "We know what we want to do and the goal we want to achieve."
Kendall's defense, which included drawing two quick charges to start the first half, showed his unselfishness. Dixon said after the game the team was arguing over who had the charges -- another sign how much they valued the defensive play.
This is not to assume that beating a mid-level MAC school indicates that Pitt is suddenly the national title favorite, but it's clear after this snapshot of the Panthers -- a season opener in which they had 23 assists on 35 buckets -- that there won't be too many teams that are as fluid offensively. The rub on Pitt in the past was that it was a gritty, defensive team that lacked an offensive flow. That couldn't be less applicable to this team.
Gray's size inside and his array of shots (post and face-up jumper), Cook's ability on the break, Ramon's and Graves' 3-point shooting, the power play of Young and the role play of Kendall, Benjamin and Fields (nine assists, two steals, two turnovers and three points) combine to make Pitt one of the toughest teams to match up with in the country.
The Panthers started with a statement here at West Point, and there's no reason to believe their season won't end with a similarly declarative mark deep into March -- or possibly even April.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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