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Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
12/18/2007 03:30:00 PM

Q&A with ... Pitt's Sam Young

Pitt's Sam Young leads the Panthers' drive against Duke Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
For the latest Q&A, I chatted with Pitt's Sam Young, who is in the midst of a breakout junior season for the undefeated, No. 11-ranked Panthers. Young, a 6-foot-6 forward, is averaging career highs of 17.8 points and 7.4 rebounds. In a consistent starting role for the first time, Young has scored in double-digits in all of the Panthers' 10 games, and should contend for All-Big East honors if he continues this level of production. The following is an edited version of our phone conversation from Monday:

Luke Winn: You had a self-imposed 'ban' on talking to the media for most of your sophomore season, when you were coming off the bench behind Levon Kendall at the power-forward spot. Why the ban?

Sam Young: Last year, I was pretty frustrated. I consider myself a hard worker, and I was working hard all offseason, and then had a knee [injury] be a problem for me all season long. I felt like I probably wasn't the best player at the three [small forward] on the team. But at the four, I felt like I was the best player, and that basically added to my frustration. I was put in a position where I couldn't win, basically. And then when the media asked me questions, they often put me in a position where I wanted to say some things that I shouldn't. So I felt like the best thing for me to do, if I didn't have anything positive to say, was to be quiet.

LW: Did that ever get uncomfortable for you, or were there at least a few moments where you felt like you wanted to start talking again, but didn't -- say, after a game where you played a lot and did well?

SY: Even after some of the big games, what I felt was that I could have been doing that all season. That [those performances] were what I was supposed to be doing. I was happy about them, but I never felt like I wanted to say something after a big game. Because I might have said the wrong things.

LW: What is it like this season, then, to be finally in the starting lineup, and also talking to the press?

SY: I feel more free. I feel like the players and the coaches have more confidence in me. Everyone knows that I'm healthy, and knows that that's a big part of me playing well. I'm capable of doing things I wasn't last year. They have confidence in me, and I have confidence in myself, that I can do anything.

LW: About that knee injury you mentioned ... Coach Jamie Dixon once made a comment that you would play almost too much pickup ball, and that wear and tear contributed to your knee problems.

SY: To be honest, I know what it was [that caused the injury]. I always had a little tremble in my knee when I would finish playing. Sometimes it hurt, sometimes it didn't. For the most part, I could still jump and be a productive player. But there was one day [in the summer of 2006] where I actually hurt it. I had a workout with my personal trainer for about two hours, doing legs, and then we hit the track for 45 minutes. And then somebody had recommended me to another trainer, and I guess he was trying to impress me, so he took me through about two hours of leg workouts -- lunges, leg press, squats. My knee was hurting, and I should have said something to him, but I didn't. I had also promised some people I would play pickup with them at about 9 p.m., and I did about two hours of that, too. The next day, my knee was worse than it ever had been. I overworked it, and it followed me through the whole season.

LW: What's the most ridiculous pickup game you've been in, maybe when you went against people who weren't exactly your level, just for the sake of playing?

SY: Sometimes I'll go back home and play pickup with the JVs at my high school [Fort Washington (Md.) Friendly]. Or if the managers here [at Pitt] want to play pickup or one-on-one, I'll play with them. I go up to the student gym, too, almost every week, to work on stuff like moves with my left hand. Pickup is how I improve my game. When I'm playing in practice and in real games, there's certain stuff I can't work on. You almost can't do certain things in practice because you're expected to maintain a certain level of play. You can't focus on stuff that you're really weak in.

LW: And these students at the rec center, do they ever get a little over-zealous about trying to go head-to-head against the school's star?

SY: Definitely. I'll go up to Trees Hall [a student gym], and every time somebody will want to pick me up and play me extra hard. They'll say, 'Let me get Sam, he'll probably kill me, but I can tell my kids about it.'

LW: I've read about your motivational phone message -- the one that goes "I'm not big enough to play the four and not skilled enough to play the three. Everything you hear right now, they said that stuff about me." Are there any others you use?

SY: I have this one on my wall at home, and up in my locker. I read it before every game, just something to remind me of who I am. This is it:

I am strong, body mind and spirit. I am different. I am cocky, confident, conceited but humble. I am serious but hilarious, independent but incomplete. I am special. I am a king in my own mind and have the wits of a God. I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul. I am a believer, for believing is understanding life. I AM A WINNER, I can't lose to any man, for when they come into contact with me, the have entered MY world. I am impatient, I will leave anyone behind that doesn't want to help themselves. I AM ONE OF A KIND, I am Sam Young.

LW: That's good. You wrote it, or adapted it from something?

SY: I wrote it.

LW: I've also read a few reports of your skills as a gymnast. There was a quote where you said people thought you could have been an Olympian. Where did that come from?

SY: I began flipping -- or doing flips -- when I was a kid, probably back to the age of six. People think it's crazy when they see me do it now for the first time, but it's like second nature to me.

LW: What's the craziest gymnastic feat you've pulled off?

SY: You have no idea. When I was young, me and guys used to have crazy flipping contests. We would flip off this elementary school building, probably 15 feet high. We flipped off of big trash dumpsters, probably eight feet. We flipped over gates, flipped off of gates. If you just look at my legs, I've got a lot of war marks from flipping off of stuff as a kid. A lot of times I was successful. But I did hurt myself, a couple of times and a got lot of bruises. I think that's one of the reasons my knees are bad, because I did so much crazy stuff as a kid.

LW: How often do you do the flips in practice, or around the team?

SY: I don't do it often, but the other day I did a handstand in the locker room for 20 seconds, and everybody looked at me like I was crazy. That was the day before the Oklahoma State game. Right in the middle of the locker room.

LW: Does anyone at school challenge you to gymnastic contests?

SY: There's a girl in the dorm who always asks me to do handstand contests, and she always wins. I give her a run for her money, but she's too good at it.

LW: Switching gears back to hoops: If you could wear any college retro jersey, whose would it be?

SY: It would probably be Vince Carter in Carolina blue. To be honest, though, I didn't even watch basketball until I got to prep school [at Hargrave Military Academy] -- I just knew how to put the ball in the hoop, and worked hard at that. When I got my first recruiting letter from Pitt, I had a friend who watched basketball a lot, and I asked him, 'Is Pitt a good school?' He was like, 'Yeah,' and he started talking about Carl Krauser and guys like that. I had no idea who Carl Krauser was.

I used to always trade basketball cards and football cards, though, and once somebody gave me a college card of Vince Carter. I didn't know who he was then, and I think I misplaced it. Then I started watching him later on in the NBA, and kind of wish I had held onto it.

LW: What are the prize cards in your collection?

SY: I probably have over 100 Michael Jordan cards, but I was more into football. Barry Sanders, from the Detroit Lions, I got his college card and his NFL card. I've actually got a card with him holding a basketball. Don't ask me how I got it, but I do.

LW: I've heard you occasionally play the piano, too. How did you get started in music?

SY: Well, my little brother, Michael Spriggs, who's 18 now, is legally blind. And I didn't start playing until he really started playing. He first did it when he was real young -- his grandmother bought him a little piano when he was a baby. But when he got to about about nine or 10, he took a liking to it and started playing a lot. He got me interested when I was in the ninth grade. I took a piano class.

LW: Who's the better piano player now?

SY: He is. We were equals back then [when he started], but now he's way better.

LW: Is he a senior in high school now?

SY: Yeah, at C.H. Flowers [in Springdale, Md.], because my family moved. He's in public school, but they give him all of his lessons in braille there.

LW: Have you learned to read any braille from him?

SY: Not at all. I don't understand how he begins to understand it.

LW: For your own music, I've heard that you play the parts to a few rap songs ...

A few times I've done that. I was trying to play by ear from stuff I heard on the radio. R&B songs, rap songs, I pretty much can play them. There's also a guy on our team, Maurice Polen, who can sing to anything. I just try to make up a beat and then he'll sing to it.

As for songs, I've played some Dr. Dre, and R. Kelly's I'll Never Leave, and Dru Hill's Incomplete. I have a keyboard in my room, and there's a piano in the student union, that's the main place kids go and relax, and there's always one in the hotel lobbies that we go to on the road.

LW: Coming into Thursday's showdown with Duke, you're 10-0 but you haven't played much of a schedule -- as compared to maybe another undefeated team like Texas, which has already faced Tennessee and UCLA. Do you want to play a tougher schedule early in the season?

SY: Definitely. Why wouldn't I? I'd want to play a schedule like that, just because I want people to know how good I really am, or how good I'm not. And I definitely want to know how good I am myself. You only can learn from a tough non-conference schedule. Playing a team going into the game that you know you can beat, you can work on your execution and stuff like that, and work on running stuff as a team. Other than that, it doesn't test you as much as a big game would.

LW: You said you didn't watch much basketball growing up, but what do you think of the mystique around the Duke program?

SY: Once I became friends with players, and a student of the game, I knew that Duke always had a crazy rep. Coach K has been doing a great job there forever. But that reputation isn't anything if you can't back it up, so I'm not worried about the reputation part. If they don't come to play, and back it up, then they'll be in trouble.

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1/23/2007 08:00:00 AM

Style Archive Update No. 3

This is the third expansion of The Style Archive, which opened on Dec. 4, 2006, and has since grown to 26 exhibits. It's a blog-museum of sorts, dedicated to the most interesting stylistic elements of college hoops, from hairdos, to flair, to YouTube-worthy moves. Below are the six most recent additions; the complete Archive can be found here.

(Readers are encouraged to make archive nominations either in the blog comments or by e-mailing hoopstylesi@gmail.com, and will be credited on the site for any successful suggestions.)

>> Jan. 23 Exhibits <<

Yo, Vanilla!
Levon Kendall, 6-10 forward, Sr., Pitt
Classification: Retro Vanilla Ice 'do
Spotted: Jan. 16 vs. UConn by The Blog
Notes: Big ups to Kendall for bringing back the cut worn by Robert Matthew Van Winkle in the early '90s. Kendall is stopping, collaborating and listening on the hardwood (as well as averaging 5.7 points per game).

The No-Tie Look
Tony Bennett, head coach, Washington State
Classification: Semi-formal coaching attire
Spotted: Jan. 16 in Seth Davis' Hoop Thoughts
Notes: The 37-year-old Bennett took over the Cougars after his father, Dick, retired in March 2006. Will Tony's instant success -- he's led Wazzu from the Pac-10 cellar to the top 25 -- start a sideline style trend?

The Vault II
Deron Washington, 6-7 forward, Jr., Virginia Tech
Classification: Posterizing layup
Spotted: Jan. 6 at Duke by the Blog
Notes: The Blue Devils' Greg Paulus would like to forget what Washington did to him at Cameron -- a crotch-in-the-face vault for a clutch layup -- but this play will be immortalized on YouTube.

The Clarence Clemons
Warren Carter, 6-9 forward, Sr., Illinois
Classification: Messy, spiked-out hairdo
Spotted: Jan. 14 at Michigan State by the Blog
Notes: We're calling Carter's look the Clarence Clemons -- rather than the Ernie (from Sesame Street), as one friend suggested -- because it looks exactly like this photo of the E Street Band saxophonist.

The Frizzled Frosh
Robin Lopez, 7-0 center, Fr., Stanford
Classification: Unkept curly 'fro
Submitted by: Stanford student Michael Lazar
Notes: Lopez is, to our knowledge, the second player (after Wazzu's Derrick Low) who keeps his mane in check with an accessory running over, rather than around, his head. It's a good way to tell him apart from his twin.

The Dangling Mouthpiece
D.J. Augustin, 5-11 guard, Fr., Texas
Classification: Constantly visible mouth flair
Spotted: Jan. 20 at Villanova by the Blog
Notes: Augustin, Kevin Durant's partner in crime on the Baby 'Horns, is bringing back a look that Illinois' Dee Brown was known for in 2003-04: He uses a mouthpiece, but never keeps it completely inside his mouth.

UPDATED: The Polynesian Revival
Derrick Low, 6-2 guard, Jr., Wash. State
Classification: Hip-to-ankle tattoo
Spotted: Dec. 28 at UCLA by the Blog
Notes: Originally we called this a knee-length tat -- but in the process of writing this story we learned the real details on the traditional Hawaiian tattoo Low got in the summer of 2006.

UPDATED: Great Oden's Beard
Greg Oden, 7-0 center, Fr., Ohio State
Classification: Old-man facial hair
Spotted: Jan. 17 vs. Northwestern by The Blog
Notes: Oden began the season with a 40-year-old's grizzly beard, but shaved it in advance of the Buckeyes' Jan. 17 date against Northwestern. He's no longer being asked for his birth certificate prior to games.

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12/12/2006 10:07:00 AM

Blog Q&A With ... Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray

Aaron Gray helped Pittsburgh to a close win over Buffalo last Saturday.
As part of an ongoing series of Blog Q&As, I chatted with Pitt's 7-foot man in the middle, Aaron Gray, on Monday. After declaring for the 2006 NBA Draft, he opted to pull out in June and return for his senior season. It's gone well thus far: He's averaging a double-double (16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds) for the nation's second-ranked team, which is 10-0 heading into a Saturday duel with No. 7 Wisconsin.

Luke Winn: You're just starting finals week at Pitt right now. What do you have left to do, degree-wise -- and do you plan to use it for anything?

Aaron Gray: I only have a few classes I have to take next semester to finish up my degree, and then I'll be graduating with a major in communications and a minor in history. I did the communications classes because I kind of want to be in broadcasting, and history was just something I really liked. As a fall-back sort of thing [to pro basketball] I could become a history teacher and coach at the high school level.

LW: So what's your area of historical expertise?

AG: Well, since it's a minor we don't have to have a concentration, but I'm mostly doing American History. I'm more into the back-in-the-day stuff, like how the country got started, from the revolution up to the Civil War.

LW: Your Panthers had quite the scare against Buffalo on Saturday, rallying from 10 points down in the second half to beat the Bulls 70-67. How did you guys pull off the comeback?

AG: We just stayed together as a team. Guys didn't start pointing fingers or yelling at each other. We kind of always had the belief, in the back of our minds, that, 'Hey, we're going to get this one.' We have a pretty good team, with a lot of experienced guys who had been in games like that before.

LW: That had to be a pretty wild scene in Buffalo, though. It's not very often that a major-conference team -- much less the No. 2 squad in the country -- travels to a good mid-major's home court.

AG: It made a real exciting atmosphere. It was the third-largest crowd in the history of [Alumni Arena], I think the fans saw a pretty good game. Of course they were doing all of their chants, and making derogatory remarks, but that's fine -- our motto has always been, 'They don't chant at the bad players.'

LW: Did the Buffalo folks give you anything good? I mean, you had 19 points and 11 rebounds in that one …

AG: It was actually kind of funny. It started off with guys saying things like, 'Oh, you think you're good enough for the NBA?' and then, 'You don’t have a chance!' But at the end, someone actually from their student section came up and shook my hand. He said, 'You're the truth, and you're going to make a lot of money.' He didn't have to say that -- because he was an opposing fan -- so I think it he meant it.

LW: You're shooting a pretty stellar 64 percent this year from the field, as opposed to 52.6 percent last season. Where are you picking up that 12 percent? New moves? Easier baskets?

AG: I think I've always had good touch around the basket, and always been able to shoot it a little bit. The reason the percentage was down last year was due to me not being in as good a shape as I am this year. I've continued to work a lot on my strength and conditioning in the offseason. It's funny, because I took easier shots last year -- far more of them right inside, near the basket, and I'd rarely ever fade out to 10 or 15 feet. This year I'm out to 10, 15, even 17 feet and my percentage has risen.

LW: Did you have some kind of specific training regiment that resulted in the new, fitter Aaron Gray?

AG: Ronald Ramon's pops actually came out and put us through a boot camp for the last six weeks of the summer, to get us ready for the season. We'd wake up at around 7 a.m., and start doing a bunch of conditioning and agility work, running hills, running on the track, and doing cone drills for lateral movement. Then we'd work the basketball camps here for the little kids, which ran from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. -- and we'd lift weights during the lunch break. After camp, we'd do all of our on-the-court stuff, with everyone working together on their ballhandling, shooting and everything else.

LW: You're playing with a point guard this year, Levance Fields, who has a 3.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. How much has that helped the team, having a floor leader who so rarely coughs up the ball?

AG: Levance has been a great asset for the team. He's a really good point guard who loves to pass the ball, and it makes our offense run smoothly. He's also able to score at times, when we need a big lift. He had a big steal to put us up for the first time against Buffalo -- that was huge. Levance is still a young guy, too, but he plays a lot older.

LW: I know you never got to play for Ben Howland at Pitt -- although he recruited you -- but how cool is it to see his new team [UCLA] and Jamie's team at Nos. 1 and 2?

AG: It's something that the media loves -- they get to play it up. What I think is, it shows that programs are not always built entirely on head coaches, but also on the guys they had around them. Coach Dixon was here with coach Howland for pretty much all of his career, and was able to learn so much from him. That's sort of repeating itself here, with coach Dixon as the head coach and his assistants growing to the point that they're getting Division I head-coaching jobs. I'm really excited to be No. 2 in the country, but right now we're trying not to focus on the ranking.

LW: Your parents, Mike and Sandy, make the long [four-hour] drive from Emmaus, Pa., to Pittsburgh for every home game. Are you going to reimburse them for the mileage when you get to the NBA?

AG: They're at all of the games, even on the road. They book their tickets at the beginning of the year for every away game, they drive out [to Pitt] for every home game, even the scrimmages, and they make team functions, too. We've had picnics, we had a Thanksgiving dinner the day after the Florida State game, and they were out here for that. They love it -- and a lot of my success is because of them, the fact that they're around at every game. So as for the payment, I don't think all the money that I'll make could really pay them back for the support.

LW: It says in your bio that you once shattered a backboard in high school. Can you tell me how that went down?

AG: It happened in practice, right before my junior season started. We were just working on getting up and down the floor, and I got an alley-oop thrown to me, and the next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. I kind of broke my ankle, and I had to get about 65 stitches in my face and down my arm. It wasn't pretty … but at the same time it was pretty cool. The bad thing is that I had to miss my first 13 games of that season. I think we went 1-12 during that stretch, and then once I came back we won 17 or 18 in a row.

LW: So you just blacked out after it shattered, or what?

AG: Well, I remember laying on the ground, and it was like I was in a pile of shattered glass and a puddle of blood. It was pretty crazy.

LW: I hope they didn't make you pay for the board.

AG: No, they didn't. But they did try to add something into our code of conduct after that -- it said that if you broke a backboard, you'd be responsible for it. I never signed it.

LW: Got a less gory, more historic hoops question for you. Who's your favorite big white guy of all-time?

AG: I don't really know. I guess I don't really look out for big white guys. The guy I grew up liking was Shaq, and one of the most underrated big men ever was Charles Barkley, who was only 6-6 but was banging against 7-1 guys every night, and he led the league in rebounding. He was real tough -- and that's how I like to play. I love rebounding the ball, and I love to play D. As for white guys, though, right now I like Pau Gasol's game. I'm also sort of a Mark Madsen fan. He's always going, always hustling. Maybe he needs to work on his dance moves, but he's a tough player.

LW: NBAdraft.net lists your pro comparison as Felton Spencer.
Any thoughts on Felton Spencer?

AG: I don't even know who that is.

LW: Ha. I like that. Moving on ... I asked Kansas' Julian Wright this question a few weeks ago. If you had to pick a college all-star team -- four guys to surround you on the floor -- but it couldn't include any other Panthers, whom would you choose?

AG: Wow, that's tough ... [pauses] At the one, I'd probably go with Dominic James from Marquette. He loves to pass but can also score a lot. At the two, I think I'll take Arron Afflalo [from UCLA]. He's a good shooter and he plays great defense for them. My three would be Kevin Durant from down at Texas. He's only a freshman, but he's averaging 22 and 10, he can really shoot the ball, and he's so long that he can play D and also be a great help as a rebounder. With a 6-10 three-man like him, the other team's second-chance opportunities would be slim to none. Finally, at the four, I'd go with Tyler Hansbrough from UNC. He's such a hustler. He's giving 100 percent on every single play, has a knack for scoring around the basket, and he can also step out and shoot as well as knock down his free throws.

LW: Finally, I know you said you didn't care that much about your ranking, but if you guys go and beat Wisconsin, do you think you'll have a good case to be No. 1?

AG: I think so, definitely. I think we can make a strong case right now. We were ranked ahead of UCLA at the start of the season, and they jumped us. They've played well, but I think we haven't doing anything to relinquish our ranking. Obviously we've got a few tough games coming up. Wisconsin barely ever loses at their place [they're 69-5 under Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center], and then after that we go to Oklahoma City to face an undefeated Oklahoma State team, and they're also really good. We're going to be facing some very tough crowds away from home.

The Blog will return in the middle of next week after a brief hiatus. In the meantime, chat amongst yourselves ...

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