Nobody is overlooking Pitt now. Led by the stellar play of junior point guard Brandin Knight, who was averaging 15.6 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals through Sunday, the Panthers were atop the Big East's West Division with a 10-3 record (22-4 overall) and ranked 11th in the nation. Pittsburgh's success can be traced to the end of last season, when the Panthers played their best ball and clawed their way to the Big East tournament championship game by upsetting Notre Dame and Syracuse before falling to Boston College. In that loss Howland saw a blueprint for the future. "BC just pushed us around," Howland says. "It was obvious that we had to get stronger."
Last year's starting center was senior Isaac Hawkins, who was 6'8", 210 pounds; now the center is 6'10", 282-pound Toree Morris, who teams with 6'8", 238-pound forward Donatas Zavackas on an imposing front line. Howland also made sure the Panthers hit the weight room during the off-season, and the results are evident: Pitt led the conference in rebounding margin (+7.2) and scoring defense (59.8 points a game). "Coach wants us to make our opponents uncomfortable," says sophomore guard Julius Page. "That means slowing down the up-tempo teams and pushing it against the slower teams."
The key to controlling tempo is the play of the 6-foot Knight, whose brother, Brevin, plays for the Memphis Grizzlies. He is Pitt's emotional leader and the player the Panthers turn to in the clutch. After Pitt trailed Syracuse by 14 points with 13 minutes left at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 10, Knight scored 11 of Iris team-high 16 points as the Panthers rallied for a 75-63 victory. "I'm lucky to have Brandin," Howland says of Knight, a Big East MVP candidate. "He makes us go."
That Pitt is in position to win its first Big East title in 14 years is a testament to Howland, who made a name for himself at Northern Arizona before taking over a Panthers' program in disarray three years ago. Pitt was an embarrassment on and off the court in the season before he took over. It lost 15 of its final 22 games, and guard Fred Primus was arrested for grand theft on a road trip to Villanova. Later that season forward Attila Cosby had been suspended for fighting with an assistant coach during a practice.
Under Howland, such transgressions have become things of the past, and Pitt appears to be a lock to earn its first NCAA tournament bid since 1993. The future looks bright as well: The Panthers will lose only one player to graduation (backup swingman Chad Johnson) and will move next year from antiquated Fitzgerald Field House to the $70 million, 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center. But as far as Pitt has come, Howland is quick to point out that the program has a long way to go. "We can't start thinking about next week, let alone next year," he says. "At this point we're not guaranteed anything."
Stars with Lost Luster
After testing the NBA waters last spring and finding them cold, guard Keith Bogans returned to Kentucky to try to boost his NBA stock. Instead his value has fallen. The low point came on Feb. 9, when Wildcats coach Tubby Smith benched Bogans for the final 18 minutes, 12 seconds of Kentucky's 68-56 win at LSU after Bogans had taken an ill-advised shot. Asked the next day to compare Bogans's play this season with last year's performance, Smith said, "There is no comparison. I can't put a finger on what's wrong, except there's been more pressure on him."
Bogans is one of several stars, including Illinois point guard Frank Williams and Iowa's Reggie Evans and Luke Recker, who have performed well below expectations this season. Bogans's scoring average of 11.8 points per game through Sunday was down 5.2 from Iris sophomore year, and his field goal percentage (39.1%) and three-point percentage (32.8%) were lower than those of his freshman season. Many observers around the SEC believe that Bogans never recovered from his mediocre performance at the NBA's predraft camp in Chicago last June. "It looks to me as if he's pressing too hard," one conference assistant coach says. "When kids come back who couldn't get drafted, sometimes they try to improve their stock instead of letting the game come to them."
Williams, who unlike Bogans might have been a first-round pick had he entered the draft last spring, has had his troubles as well. Last season the mini's two best inside players were seniors (and Williams's old high school teammates) Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain. Without them this year Williams's scoring average was up nearly two points a game, to 16.7, but he had seemed listless at times, and his shooting (38.7% from the floor and 30.5% from three-point range) had been dismal. In a particularly poor stretch for Williams, from Jan. 5 to Feb. 3, Illinois lost five of eight games. Williams attributes his poor play to tired legs, and while the Mini seemed to have regained their footing with four straight wins, Williams still has to prove he can consistently carry a team. "His teammates were better last year, so his weaknesses weren't as glaring," one NBA executive says. "If Frank is trying to impress NBA scouts, he hasn't done it."
Iowa's disappointing season—the Hawkeyes were a preseason favorite in the Big Ten but were tied for ninth place in the conference with a 4-9 record—can be attributed in part to the poor play and lack of leadership shown by senior captains Evans and Recker. During a recent span of three games Recker shot 32.2% from the field. He was benched for the start of last Saturday's 72-66 home loss to Ohio State along with Iowa's other starters and finished with a season-low three points.