- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Maybe Levon Kendall is just smarter than most.
Maybe that's why he figured out how to get ahead financially in college, like having his parents help him buy a rundown house for about $30,000 in a bankruptcy sale when he arrived at Pitt in 2002. And now, some $60,000 to $70,000 later in renovations, the house, just a few streets away from the Petersen Center, is ready to be sold after he graduates for a likely profit.
Maybe that's why preseason Big East player of the year and likely lottery pick Pitt center Aaron Gray is so close to Kendall, paying him rent the past two years, and absorbing Kendall's worldly knowledge on business as well as listening to him tickle the ivories of a piano that needed a home, considering Kendall's father, Simon, is a pianist (trust us when we tell you he can play very well).
Maybe that's why he knows how to stuff a coach's favorite stat columns -- like charges, deflections, entry passes, screens, ball movement and overall leadership that might not have a number but is duly noted -- throughout a game. Maybe that's why if Pitt beats Wisconsin on Saturday in Madison, Kendall will have a huge role.
Maybe that's why Kendall is one of the most important players on any potential national contending team even if he falls short of averaging 10 points a game.
Maybe that's why Kendall could be in the NBA next season as the ultimate blender, a player who simply makes the offense flow better despite his lack of starlike stats.
"All I know is that we're better with him than without him," coach Jamie Dixon said of his 6-10, 225-pound senior forward from aesthetically pleasing Vancouver, British Columbia. "He does a lot of things. We can put him on the better big, play him with the small guys, the big guys; he can play the four or the five. He's always in the right place for his teammates and is a security blanket for us because we can always count on him."
Poll coaches in the Big East, as ESPN.com did for a Summer Session in August, and Kendall's name kept coming up for the player they see on tape they'd love to have on their team.
"Whatever we need, I try to do, like getting rebounds, putbacks, helping get others shots."
-- Levon Kendall
Just think about this: He almost certainly would not have made it to the Big East had world events not interrupted Dixon's recruiting schedule in 2001. Dixon was supposed to go on a recruiting trip to New York City, scheduled the weekend after Sept. 11. Well, that was off, obviously, so Dixon drove to Toronto for a weekend tournament where he spotted a slender kid from western Canada who knew how to play the game.
Five years later, Kendall could be one of the main reasons Pitt contends for the national title.
"Whatever we need, I try to do, like getting rebounds, putbacks, helping get others shots," Kendall said.
Gray can't say enough about Kendall. Speaking in the hallway of the house they share with members of a rock band, he talked about how much Kendall makes the Panthers better, his ability to pass, lead and make this team mesh.
"You'd be amazed how many NBA people talk to us about him," said Dixon, despite Kendall's averages of 6.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists in 28 minutes a game.
NBA personnel aren't fools when judging Kendall. First off, they did see him score 40 in beating the U.S. in a World Championship qualifier in 2005. So, it's not as if he can't score. Although Kendall has struggled a bit this season (14.3 percent on 3s, 38.3 percent overall), Dixon won't stop trying to get him shots.
"I've played with NBA guys and I'm not out of their league," Kendall said. "It takes work, but I know that basketball people know I can do it. It's more than scoring."
The unselfishness Kendall shows in his personal as well as basketball life is apparent every day. In the house Kendall owns, he is, as Gray says, one of the best landlords he could ever have. There is a free spirit feeling within the walls. The band practices in the basement and has the full support of Kendall, and even Gray, although there have been a few game-day Saturday mornings that made listening to the pounding of drums and the bass guitar a bit much.
Still, Kendall exudes confidence among his friends and teammates. There isn't anyone on this squad who doesn't respect him or his game.
"I'm telling you, the NBA guys love him."
-- Pitt coach Jamie Dixon
"I'm telling you, the NBA guys love him," Dixon said. Gray doesn't doubt his ability to play at a high level, either. Kendall has a wit about him, a dry one with his monotone voice that seems to keep the more introverted Gray at ease. When Kendall, upon being prodded, sat down for a one-melody session, Gray's face lit up almost like he does when Kendall is there for a screen or an entry pass to get Gray a shot in a big game.
So, when you're watching the Panthers, look closely for Kendall. He won't be the one dunking or raising his hands up high after a big 3-pointer, but he'll likely have a part in why one of the two happened at all throughout the game.
Kendall isn't the only one who seems to thrive on being a blender, the one player who could make a significant difference in a team's season. There are countless more. Here are seven others who could prove vital to their teams' success:
John Oates, 6-10, Jr., C, Boston College: He takes charges, hits an occasional 3-pointer, makes the entry passes to Jared Dudley and is there for a screen for Tyrese Rice or Sean Marshall. BC coach Al Skinner said if Oates does those types of things, the Eagles have a chance. He doesn't star like shot-blocker Sean Williams, but he can be just as important to making the Eagles fly.
Sasha Kaun, 6-11, Jr., Kansas: Kaun started out the year hurt, and he struggled to find his shot once he came back. But KU coach Bill Self will tell you he needs Kaun's presence in the middle to keep everyone else at their natural positions. He's a big, plodding man who can help with screens, altering shots and of course rebounds to get that Kansas break going. If KU wins the title, don't be surprised to see Kaun have as healthy a role as, say, Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur.
Joe Krabbenhoft, 6-7, So., Wisconsin: Does Bo Ryan always have a player like Krabbenhoft? It seems that way. He is the ultimate blender, the one player who won't fill up the stat sheet but always seems to help out the flow of the offense while also being a pest defensively. He plugs away for 20 minutes a game and rotates in at a few positions. Keep an eye on him against Pitt and see where he makes a difference.
Ivan Harris, 6-7, Sr., Ohio State: He's not the traditional player who doesn't do much to jump out at you on the stat sheet because Harris can knock down the 3-pointer (as seen against North Carolina). But Harris' improved defense for coach Thad Matta is making him an irreplaceable piece in the Buckeyes' championship quest. He's doing a bit of everything for Matta and will help offer plenty of guidance to the kiddie corps leading the Buckeyes.
P.J. Couisnard, Jr., G, Wichita State: OK, so Couisnard is the Shockers' third-leading scorer, but he is averaging 10 points, not 18. And it's his defense coach Mark Turgeon is proud of. Couisnard isn't going to get headlines like Kyle Wilson or Sean Ogirri, who will get plenty for his 3-point shooting as well as his high hair. But Couisnard will be just as important a figure as anyone else in the Shockers' quest for a Final Four.
David Pendergraft, 6-6, Jr., Gonzaga: Watching a Zags game, you likely will see the curly redhead doing something that makes this team better, whether that's banging in a jumper or an offensive putback or just running the floor and causing havoc. He's the ultimate Zag, someone like the old wild hair Zach Gourde, who used to seem to be in the middle of every play when he was on the court.
Chris Richard, 6-9, Sr., Florida: The Gators are dealing with their share of injuries and illnesses this season, and that's why you'll see even more of a need for Richard. He's a burly, thick forward who does come up with the key screen or offensive rebound and simply makes it hard for a defender to get around. Richard's presence and experience will go a long way toward helping the Gators in their quest to win another title.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.