Pittsburgh Sports Report
March 2003

Media Savvy
Pitt's Success Adds To Fun
By Paul Alexander

It was in this very space not too long ago that I waxed poetic about how awesome 'Burgh hoops used to be back in the day. Well, thanks to Gentle Ben Howland and his band of defensive warriorsólast season, I felt like Bill Walton on a Grateful Dead Tour.

Each and every trip is indeed unique. There are no givens in sports. Just because last year's Panthers returned intact with the addition of some depth at point guard in the form of Carl Krauser, doesn't mean Pitt gets to start with a guaranteed appearance in the Sweet 16. It just doesn't work that way. Ask the Steelers. Going from Cinderella to the Belle-of-the-ball is not an easy transition. You don't get talk about a lack of respect. You are no longer the feel-good story. You are now the game that's circled on the opponents schedule. The fans storm the floor when you get beat on the road.

While all of those factors may indeed make this year's ride a bit bumpier, the Panthers still have last season's tournament experience to call upon and what an experience that was.

For those of us who truly love the game, March is special no matter who's involved. It starts with the conference tourneys. Selection Sunday is like Christmas Eve, and then that first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament is like Nirvana. I have always tried to take that day as a vacation day.

The Panthers, God bless them, didn't allow this to happen to me.

Selection Sunday was spent hanging out with the Panthers and learning with them that they would be staying home to meet Central Connecticut State at the Mellon Arena. The Panthers would take care of California by 13 to advance to the sweet 16. In-between Panther victories, I had the wonderful experience of sitting within a bounce pass of Bob Huggins as his Cincy Bearcats battled Cal. I could barely watch the game. Huggins was a one-man play, and his performance was spellbinding. As a whole, the Regional was riveting, and best of all, the Panthers weren't done.

It was off to Lexington, Kentucky and the Sweet 16. Rupp Arena, nestled in and among hundreds of horse farms, is college basketball. There are championship banners. There are the memories of Goose Givens hanging 41 on Michigan to win it all. There were Duke and Indiana and there was the national spotlight shining brightly on the Pitt basketball program.

The Panthers and Kent had to wait for Duke and Indiana to get out of the way before they could play. We all know the result, but by being there you get the nuggets that you otherwise miss. While the Duke and Indiana head coaches were meeting with the tournament officials, a Duke assistant athletic director poked his head in the door and innocently asked one of the officials, "What time do we play on Sunday?" Yes, right in front of Mike Davis, this no-name Dukie had totally disrespected Indiana.

Ouch. Davis shared that story with his Indiana Hoosiers, and the rest as they say is history.

The Pitt/Kent game was a disappointment. The fact that the Panthers witnessed Duke go down may have been part of the problem. They didn't look past Kent but they appeared to look further down that road to the Final Four. It was an empty feeling but can you imagine how Panthers' radio guy Dick Groat felt? The Duke alumnus watched his Blue Devils go down only to follow that up by calling a tough Panther loss. The worst part of all, it was so late, there wasn't even a tavern open to drown a sorrow or two.

That was last March, one of my favorite on record. I have no idea how things will unfold this time around. I do know that my favorite time of the year has been greatly enhanced by the recent relevance of the Panthers. Sometimes it's tough to grasp the fact that Pitt is a player. They are for real and a trip to New Orleans is no longer a pipe dream. God, I love March!

Paul Alexander has a sports talk show 6-9 pm weekdays on KDKA NewsTalk 1020.

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