Fields and Young propel Panthers
PITTSBURGH -- It was Levance Fields' groin injury that caused the alarm, not the back contusion he suffered after landing with a thud on the court late in Pittsburgh's win over Marquette on Wednesday night.
The Panthers had seen this before. Last season, Fields broke his foot a game after hitting the biggest shot of his career to beat Duke in Madison Square Garden. Fields missed 12 games, and ultimately, Pitt was never quite the same.
"A lot of things went wrong: We lost Levance, then lost to Dayton -- lost Mike Cook for the year, too [to a knee injury in the Duke game] -- and then the chemistry was off when Levance came back," Pitt senior Sam Young said. "We weren't as polished as we are now."
That's why the Panthers couldn't afford to see Fields fall again, not days before having to play top-ranked Connecticut for the second time this season in the regular-season finale. Nope. This couldn't happen, not when everything was at stake: a sweep of the Huskies, a possible share of the Big East regular-season title, a No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament and a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Nervous -- I was nervous," Pitt trainer Tony Salesi said. "I started to play out what had happened to him the past 12 to 15 months with three surgeries over that time. He hadn't been able to practice. I was nervous."
Who wouldn't be? Fields wasn't, not one bit. Even with limited mobility less than 24 hours before Saturday's noon tip-off, Fields finished with 12 assists and two turnovers in 37 minutes in Pitt's convincing 70-60 victory over the Huskies. On senior day, in front of arguably their loudest home crowd in the past four years, the Panthers became the first team to beat a top-ranked squad twice in the same season since Louisville did it against Florida and Kentucky in 2003-04.
Salesi said Fields suffered a "pelvic rotation" when he fell on Wednesday, and even though the tailbone took the brunt of the fall, getting his groin healthy required the most treatment.
"I was so sore, I couldn't put any pressure on it," Fields said. "I had to hold onto the wall."
But Fields was diligent about getting treatment in the whirlpool and stretching. Early Saturday morning, Fields got treatment again and then went to an auxiliary gym instead of warming up with the team.
"Once I felt that I could drive," Fields said, "I knew I could play."
"I'm happy for him," Salesi said of Fields. "He feels good right now; he'll get treatment [Sunday] and rest the next 48 hours. I anticipate he'll be fine in the Big East tournament."
Let's skip ahead, though, and look beyond New York. The Panthers are good to go with Fields in the NCAA tournament, possibly as the No. 1 overall seed. And clearly this team is better prepared to handle the expectations.
Young (31 points) was unstoppable, finishing Fields' assists, running the floor, hitting face-up shots and working the offensive backboard.
Young is hardly a role player. He's a star. Sophomore forward DeJuan Blair called Young "Superman." He also had nicknames for himself (Robin), Fields (Batman) and senior Tyrell Biggs (the Joker). But this squad is hardly comical. Add wing Jermaine Dixon and solid bench players Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs (a total of 15 points off the pine), and you get a Panthers team that's experienced, has multiple scoring options, can defend and rebound, and has enough depth to win the national title.
"Everyone wants to write stories about the new guy [Blair], and yet Sam has 25 in the first UConn game and nobody mentions him," Dixon said. "He's good, he's really good, and it's like [Notre Dame's Luke] Harangody, [UNC's Tyler] Hansbrough, where no one talks about them even though they're putting up similar numbers."
Young is hardly a secondary cast member. Yet he does tend to be out of the spotlight.
"I would love to share the attention with DeJuan and Levance," Young said. "I have no problem with that. But I work really hard. I know if the attention doesn't come to me, it will eventually come back because of how hard I work and how much I have prepared for a time like this."
Fellow seniors Fields and Biggs share Young's patience. Together they have earned a top seed and the expectation of joining North Carolina, Connecticut and Oklahoma as likely favorites to get to Detroit.
Connecticut, meanwhile, lost its first road game of the season Saturday. That fact alone convinced UConn coach Jim Calhoun that the Huskies were already prepared for a deep March run, even as they adjusted to playing without starting guard Jerome Dyson. As Dixon said, the Huskies are extremely hard to score against with Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien patrolling the paint, and they can match scoring runs with A.J. Price's ability to burn a run of 3s.
But the Panthers have something that UConn isn't getting yet: scoring off the bench. They also have a seemingly underrated star in Young, a jovial monster of a man in the middle in Blair, and a gritty point guard in Fields, who is still standing after another injury scare.
"We're just more experienced now," Young said. "And our confidence level is through the sky."
It should be. Fields is fine. Young is a stud. Blair is a star. And the bench is more than adequate. The Panthers are primed for a run to Detroit.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.