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In-your-face Pittsburgh eyes No. 1 seed

SPECIAL TO ESPN.COM

Feb. 18, 2004
The Steelers, Pirates and Penguins have not given Pittsburgh sports fans much to cheer about lately. Maybe that's why the city has embraced the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team.

Jamie Dixon has done a super job in his rookie season as head coach after taking over for Ben Howland, who is now at UCLA. Dixon's team fights and scraps for every loose ball and plays so hard. The players come right at you, playing in-your-face and physical yet clean basketball.

Julius Page
Guard Julius Page and the Panthers are soaring this season in the Big East and nationally.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun has said that you have to bring a helmet when you play the Panthers. His Huskies were reminded of that once more Sunday when Pittsburgh prevailed 75-68 at home in a key Big East contest (last month in Connecticut, UConn had defeated the Panthers 68-65).

The Panthers are in first place in the Big East (9-2 conference, 23-2 overall) -- and they're a contender for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They are ranked No. 4 in this week's ESPN/USA Today poll.

Pittsburgh takes such pride in its defense. The Panthers simply don't allow opponents to get off any easy shots. On offense, they're very patient. At times, they can lull you to sleep.

I've been so impressed with Pittsburgh this season. They play so well together, with great team chemistry and camaraderie.

Dixon has done a great job and so has Barry Rohrssen, the assistant who has helped recruit many of the current Panthers. I really feel that Rohrssen has a great future -- he would make an excellent head coach.

Pittsburgh has an interesting blend of talent. There are a number of wide bodies, strong inside players who like to mix it up. Junior forward Chevon Troutman is tough to stop inside, while freshman forward Chris Taft has been one of the nation's premier diaper dandies this season.

Sophomore point guard Carl Krauser, an old-school player from New York City, loves to go one-on-one. He is fearless and loves to break opponents down on the dribble. Krauser has excelled as the replacement for Brandin Knight, who graduated -- not an easy feat.

Krauser's veteran backcourt mate, senior Julius Page, really performs when the cameras are on. He could be a defensive back in the NFL the way he defends.

Winning becomes contagious, and it's certainly spreading at Pittsburgh (next game: Saturday at Big East foe West Virginia). There's plenty of basketball still to be played before Selection Sunday, but it's clear that the Panthers are for real.

Dick Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons and the University of Detroit in the 1970s before providing color commentary for ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 (he has been an ESPN analyst ever since). Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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