Pitt still trying to find post-injury identity
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Someone asked Sam Young how long it might take his team to get comfortable with who they are now that Mike Cook is gone for the season and Levance Fields is out for the foreseeable future.
There is no answer, no blueprint to the finish line for a team that started the season in the top 20 and as the fourth-best team in the Big East and now is scrambling with seven scholarship players.
So, understandably, when the question was posed, Young paused for a considerable time before answering truthfully.
"I don't know," the Pitt forward said. "I'm trying to figure that out right now. I'm sure the coaches and the rest of my team are trying, too. We're trying to see how it will work. There's a lot of stuff going on, and we're trying to figure it out. In the process, we're trying to win games."
In less than two weeks, Pitt went from the high of a signature victory against Duke to the equivalent of basketball purgatory. Cook blew out his ACL in overtime against the Blue Devils. With 15:45 left against Dayton in the next game, Fields broke his foot. Mix in the fact that rookie Austin Wallace already was lost for the season with a fractured patella. And oh, by the way, senior Ronald Ramon, pressed to start at the point in Fields' absence, is playing with one dislocated shoulder and likely a torn rotator cuff in the other. And coach Jamie Dixon suddenly is a mad scientist with a roundball, deseprately trying to concoct some sort of winning formula.
He got close Sunday. The Panthers uglied up Villanova to the tune of 34 percent shooting from the floor and forced its starting rotation into 8-of-34 shooting. Only problem was, the Panthers didn't account for Malcolm Grant. A hero in the come-from-behind win against LSU, Grant bailed out his team once again. The rookie scored 22 points in 27 minutes as the Wildcats eked out a 64-63 win.
Afterward, it would have been easy for Dixon to throw up his hands and say, "What can you do?" No doubt, most hoops aficionados across the country are doing just that.
But Dixon isn't one of them.
"There's no excuse for this. We should have won," Dixon said. "We had it. We played well enough to win."
This program is traditionally known for its basketball; we're known as one of the best teams in the Big East. It's known what we have to do, but we have to figure out how to do it.
-- Pitt forward Sam Young
The Panthers (12-2, 0-1 Big East) even have a morbid sense of humor about the whole thing. On the pregame press release, underneath the roster, associate media relations director Greg Hotchkiss prints the team's disabled list.
One thing Pitt doesn't have is a lot of answers. DeJuan Blair is a force inside. Young is a decent power forward, and Gilbert Brown is a solid 3-man. But the Panthers don't have a lot of guards. After Ramon and Keith Benjamin, there is only rookie Brad Wanamaker left on the roster. Ask anyone who has survived the wilds of the Big East, and they will tell you that's simply not enough.
"It hurts you at the end of the game," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You need guards who can handle the ball. The bigs can get in foul trouble, and you're alright. But the guards, you need the guards."
Wright knows guards. The Main Line is becoming to backcourt players what USC is to quarterbacks. Three years ago, Wright rode his controversial three-guard lineup to the Elite Eight, starting a pipeline of New York City kids to campus. He's got another trio this season with Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Grant. Difference is, the former is a sophomore and the latter two are freshmen, so they are prone to mistakes, to suffering spilled apple carts over seemingly insignificant things.
Reynolds, for example, went through his regular Sunday routine of going to church at 10:30 a.m. -- "He goes to one specific church, that's his thing," Wright epxlained -- but it meant Reynolds arrived at the gym 40 mninutes before the noon tip. Whether it was the late arrival or the interruption of his Sunday ritual, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year looked out of synch all game. He had four points on 1-of-6 shooting and never was really a factor.
Wright wasn't surprised. He isn't surprised by anything with his team right now. Without a senior on the roster, the Wildcats (11-2, 1-1) are nothing if not unpredictable. They stormed back from 21 down against LSU and came out Flat Stanley flat against DePaul. Against a much more physical and experienced Pitt team, the Cats twice rallied from deficits. It all makes no sense, which makes perfect sense to Wright.
Neither was Dixon. How could he be? The Panthers had played one game with their newly finagled roster, but that was against Lafayette, a decent Patriot League team but no match for the Big East. That the Panthers twice erased Villanova 10-0 runs told Dixon a lot about what he has.
That they couldn't get over the hump told him what he doesn't have.
Up 63-62 with the ball but without Benjamin, who had fouled out with 15 points at the 3:29 mark, Ramon drove to the hoop but couldn't get the floater to fall. Cunningham came up with the rebound for Villanova. Grant tried to score on his own dribble drive, but as he went to the hoop, his legs seized up.
"Phew, you have no idea," he said of the cramps that hit both legs. "They told me to get up, and I couldn't even get up."
Grant missed the wild shot, and Cunningham and Blair tussled for the rebound. Nova got the ball on the possession arrow. After Grant was helped off the court, Reynolds took the ball at the top of the key, evaded two defenders and sliced a bounce pass to Cunningham underneath. The junior missed the shot but drew the foul.
"We have a drill called 'win the game,'" Cunningham said of his free-throw preparation. "That's what all the guys were telling me, 'Win the game.' "
Cunningham did, but only because Pitt never got off its last chance.
Ramon is accustomed to playing the point, but there is no ignoring the fact he made mistakes Fields likely would not have, most egregiously on the final play of the game. Bottled up by a double team at the top of the key, he lost the handle and the ball popped in the air, dropping directly into Cunningham's hands to end the game.
It was an anticlimatic finish to what otherwise had been a good game, and it left Pitt feeling like one slipped away.
"This program is traditionally known for its basketball; we're known as one of the best teams in the Big East," Young said. "It's known what we have to do, but we have to figure out how to do it."
Just don't ask him how long that might take.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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