Commentary

Work ethic takes Young to higher level

Pitt's overlooked star finds motivation on and off the court

Updated: March 26, 2009, 4:38 PM ET
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

Sam Young had promised to do a backflip on the court if he were to lead Pittsburgh out of the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament at Dayton.

[+] EnlargeSam Young
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPerhaps for his next trick, Sam Young will do backflips on the court.

Instead, after Sunday's 32-point performance against Oklahoma State, Young was summoned for an immediate postgame interview. By the time he finished talking, Louisville and Siena had taken the floor for the next game. "That messed my flow up," Young said.

Chalk it up as one of the biggest upsets of the tournament's first weekend. Because when Young puts his mind to accomplishing something, he usually can't be stopped.

Pitt's leading scorer of the past two seasons drew scant attention from major Division I programs during his senior year of high school, even though he had helped his team win two Maryland state titles. Pittsburgh liked his raw athleticism and toughness, but Joe Lombardi, who was a Panthers assistant coach at the time (now head coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania), said the 6-foot-6 Young "couldn't make a shot without his hand on the net."

Still, Lombardi thought Young could develop into a rebounder and defensive menace as an undersized power forward in the Chevon Troutman mode. A perimeter player or offensive star? No way.

What no one could predict was the effect of Young's determination. He began to improve his ballhandling and shooting skills during a year at prep school, Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. He played understudy at power forward his first two seasons at Pitt, coming off the bench and providing the occasional highlight-reel dunk. Finally a starter in his junior season, Young more than doubled his scoring average (from 7.2 to 18.1 points per game) and was named the Big East's most improved player.

As a senior this season, he has averaged 18.9 points and 6.3 rebounds while playing primarily small forward for the first time. In two wins over Connecticut, Young scored a total of 56 points.

"There hasn't ever been a player who gives us as many problems as he does," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after Young torched the Huskies for 31 points on the Panthers' Senior Day.

In the first half of Sunday's second-round win over Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh looked in danger of being run out of the building. The Cowboys made 10 of their first 16 3-pointers, and Panthers center DeJuan Blair got off only one shot attempt. But Young carried his team with 23 first-half points and played all 40 minutes in the game.

"It's been an incredible evolution on his part," Lombardi said. "And it's all hard work. He has the ability to be focused and to have a singular purpose."

Stories of Young's devotion to his craft are legendary around Pitt. People talk about the nights he slept on an air mattress in the gym after hours of shooting alone and how he would blow off social gatherings on weekends to find a pickup game on campus. That tunnel vision didn't just begin in college, either.

"This is a guy who'd be at school at 6:30 in the morning working out or at the gym," said close friend Chris Howard, Young's teammate at Friendly High School and now a guard at South Florida. "When he was at Hargrave, there'd be times we'd call each other and be on speakerphone while we were doing push-ups.

"He's not one of those guys you're going to see in the club. Sometimes he'll call me and say he's going to movies, and I'll joke around and say, 'Who are you going with? Who's the girl?' And he'll say, 'I'm going by myself.' That's the kind of focus you've got to have until you get to the place you want to be."

The aim of his focus wasn't always clear to others. Pitt keeps rebounding statistics in practice, and Lombardi said Young easily could have led the team in that stat every single day with his leaping ability and strength. But whole practices would go by in which he wouldn't even try to grab a rebound, so intent was he on proving he was not just a post player.

Then there's the head fake. Few college players are associated with a signature move as Young is. He'll rise up almost halfway into his shooting motion, often even lifting one foot off the ground. Defenders will fly out to contest the outside shot, only to watch Young glide by for a short jumper or a dunk.

Big East opponents have bitten on this deception for years. Oklahoma State's players, who had to have "stay home Young's head fake" highlighted and underlined at the top line of their scouting report, still fell for it repeatedly Sunday.

[+] EnlargeSam Young
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesYoung sometimes marches to his own drummer, and that's not a bad thing.

The one person who almost ended the move's effectiveness was Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. He and his staff teach players to jab no more than six inches on their pump fakes and not to raise the ball above their heads. They tried to talk Young into following that directive. Luckily for all involved, he never listened.

"Some people would call that stubborn, and others would say it's commitment," Lombardi said. "He's always been very committed. He's just marching to his own drummer."

That's for sure. Teammate Tyrell Biggs describes Young as "a quiet guy who keeps to himself," which is the consensus of many who cross his path. Yet, Young constantly surprises people with the depth of his personality.

He writes poems and has spoken to a publisher about compiling them into a book. Early in his career, the outgoing message on Young's cell phone voice mail was a verse about how people doubted him. He keeps one of his poems taped to his locker for inspiration. Last year, he read some of his work at an open-mike night at a Pittsburgh coffeehouse.

Young also plays the piano. No one on the team knew about that skill until he started tickling the ivory at the hotel where Pitt stayed before a game at Georgetown a couple of years ago. There's also another legendary campus story about how Young shocked the school's diving coach one day by climbing up to the 7½-meter board and performing a perfect 2½ somersault with hardly a ripple.

He can come off a bit moody at times, and he refused to do interviews with the media his sophomore year after failing to crack the starting lineup. Howard said he's a fierce self-critic; after the Oklahoma State game, Young called Howard wanting his opinion on all the things he did wrong.

A large part of Young's driving force is his younger brother. Michael Spriggs, who's now a freshman at Frostburg (Md.) State, went blind at age 13.

"He wants his brother to have the best life possible," Howard said. "I really think that's something that's motivating him to get to the next level. Maybe he can't give his brother his eyes, but he can give him the next best thing by making anything he wants possible."

Like Young, Spriggs refused to believe in impossibilities. Spriggs won a gold medal in judo at an international blind sports competition, and as a senior in high school, he qualified for Maryland's state wrestling tournament. (For more on Spriggs, check out this "E:60" piece.)

Young's best poem can't provide more inspiration than what the two brothers have accomplished through determination.

"I feel like there's no limit to anybody," Young said. "Everybody has potential, no matter how old you are, how short you are or what have you. Your potential just depends on your work ethic."

Young's other motivation this season is to lead Pitt past the Sweet 16, a place the program has not reached since 1974. He feels the burden of past failures, including last year's second-round loss to Michigan State.

"This is my last year, and I feel like we've pretty much been making history all year," he said. "Being No. 1, twice beating the No. 1 team in the country twice, being a No. 1 seed.

"I want to continue to make history. One of my goals is to make sure that when I leave, my name will still be in the program. I want to make up for past mistakes."

If Pittsburgh can advance out of Boston this weekend and go to the Final Four, Young promises he'll break off at least a couple of backflips right there on the TD Banknorth Garden floor.

Doesn't matter who runs onto the court this time. Young has his mind set on another goal.

Brian Bennett covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com.