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All five starters return to lead talented Panthers

SPECIAL TO ESPN.COM

Sept. 25
For Pittsburgh sports fans, there's been some disappointment lately. The Pirates have struggled this season -- they've got a beautiful ballpark, but they don't have the Ws to keep their fans dancing with joy. What about the 0-2 Steelers? This was supposed to be a big-time year. I know it's early, but coach Bill Cowher's club had high hopes. Jerome "The Bus" Bettis and Co. must get going to get the fans rockin' and rollin'! In college football, the Pittsburgh Panthers look like an average team.

Julius Page
Julius Page and the Panthers are ready to soar in the Big East again this season.
If fans in Pittsburgh really want to rock and roll, they can get ready for the college hoop season, baby! Coach Ben Howland's Panthers should be something special. Fans will be dancing in the aisles at their new facility, the Petersen Events Center. It will be a special place that creates loads of enthusiasm.

Why is Pittsburgh so highly touted for the 2002-03 season? The Panthers, who set a school record for wins last season (29), return all five starters. I have them at No. 4 in my preseason Dazzling Dozen rankings, and I see them as the favorite to win the Big East's West Division.

The Panthers won 13 Big East games in '01-'02, their most since joining the league, and finished first in the Big East-West. The Panthers had a 27-5 regular-season record (13-3 Big East) and were 29-6 overall, counting the NCAA Tournament. They advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, losing 78-73 to Kent State. The Panthers lost to Connecticut in the Big East tournament championship game.

Pittsburgh's perimeter guys, senior point guard Brandin Knight and junior Julius Page, will make a lot of noise. Knight was the Big East's co-player of the year last season (along with Caron Butler of Connecticut), and he's primed for a dazzling season.

Look for Knight to improve at the free-throw line the way he improved last year from 3-point range. Knight shot 35.6 percent last season from beyond the arc, up from 25 percent the season before. He was at 44.2 percent from the charity stripe last season, but I feel he'll be at about 60 percent this season. Knight makes things happen offensively and defensively. Would you believe he led the Panthers in defensive rebounding last season? He had 140 defensive rebounds, averaging 4.8 rebounds overall.

In Page, the Panthers have one of the best athletes in America. He can put a show on with his athleticism. And look for big things from freshman Carl Krauser, a 6-foot-2 guard from the Bronx. He dazzled many with his practice performances while sitting out last year.

The front line is not a spectacular group, but it's physical and knows how to win. Ontario Lett is a solid low-post player who can score on the interior. 6-10 Toree Morris is a presence in the post, though not a great scoring threat. Look for a pair of super sophs, 6-7 Chevy Troutman and 6-10 Mark McCarroll, to earn more minutes. They will be factors this season.

Underrated 6-4 Jaron Brown, a top-flight rebounder who led the team last season with 6.1 rpg, will provide toughness on the wing.

It should be a big-time season for Howland and the Panthers. I know they can't wait to get started at Pittsburgh. The pressure is going to mount because of the growing expectations. How you handle those is very important. Something tells me these kids will respond to the challenge.

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