Panthers Eager To Get Leader Back

By Phil Kasiecki - February 02, 2008

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The two big injuries that hit Pittsburgh in late December may be catching up to them.

At first, the Panthers kept on winning, as they came out on top in four of their first five games after Levance Fields was lost to a broken foot injury, a week after Mike Cook was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Included was a win over Georgetown, although it was at home, while a road loss to Villanova in that stretch might be understandable.

But since then, the Panthers have alternated wins and losses beginning with a loss at better-than-advertised Cincinnati. That theme continued in the Panthers' 60-53 loss to Connecticut at the XL Center in Hartford on Saturday, a game where the Panthers had an edge at various points but couldn't get anything going in the final minutes.

For the first nine games after Fields' injury, several players had stepped up from being role players to taking on key roles. It wasn't entirely surprising that they played well, considering that players like seniors Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon are seasoned veterans and aren't lacking talent. With his minutes doubling, Benjamin has shot better and averaged just under 14 points per game, while Ramon has taken better care of the ball and shot better from long range in taking over the starting point guard spot. Redshirt freshman Gilbert Brown and junior Tyrell Biggs have also had expanded roles and helped out.

But on Saturday, those same four players didn't step up and it made a difference. Benjamin scored five points on 2-11 shooting, Ramon played just 25 minutes while saddled with foul trouble and Biggs had two points and one rebound. Brown did score 10 points in 35 minutes.

The Panthers are 5-4 in Big East play, and while that might look good when all things are considered, it's not enough for them. They're looking forward to their leader coming back, although they know they have to keep playing without him for a while.

"We're all waiting for Levance, and we can't wait for him to get back, but we're not going to say we're okay because we're not going to settle for anything," said junior forward Sam Young.

Freshman DaJuan Blair struggled from the field against Connecticut, going 5-14 en route to 13 points to go with 13 rebounds. Nine of those rebounds came on the offensive end, as Blair showed a great nose for the ball as he has all season long. The bulky post player plays the game with a big smile and seems to be enjoying the entire experience, save for the recent losses.

"We keep bouncing back and forth," said Blair. "We win, we lose, win, lose. I don't like that. Where I came from, I was a winner. I'm trying to get a winning streak going, that'll put our confidence back"

The Panthers certainly don't have the same margin for error they did earlier in the season thanks to the injuries. Besides Cook and Fields, Austin Wallace is also lost for the season and Cassin Diggs has battled nagging injuries as well. That's meant playing freshmen probably more than Jamie Dixon probably wanted to before the season.

It also means that assessing them based on their record probably isn't going to yield an accurate assessment.

"We're obviously a team that's playing four freshmen and new guys, so where we are is not that important, it's where we're going to be and continuing to improve," said Dixon.

Related to that, the freshmen have come along. Blair has started all along and made an instant impact as one of the Big East's top rebounders, recording his ninth double-double on Saturday. Dixon is also happy with the way Gary McGhee and Brad Wanamaker have come along as they have seen increased minutes. Both fit the way this team tries to play as they are tough and physical players.

"Our four freshmen are much better players than they were to start the year, and even a month ago," said Dixon. "That's our biggest goal, continuing to improve, and I think anybody that's seen these four guys has seen them over the last month improve as players."

An injury to a key player or two can sometimes prove to be a blessing in disguise for a team as they develop some depth while having to continue playing. It's not a simple matter to integrate the returning player back in, but usually teams manage.

If what the Panthers have done thus far is any indication, they should be in very good shape when Fields returns. The opposing coach on Saturday certainly believes that much.

"There isn't any reason to believe they can't win the Big East," said Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun of the Panthers.

The Panthers may still have some ups and downs ahead, as they have Marquette and Notre Dame on the road later in the month and the Big East has proven to be wide open. But if they continue to manage through the loss to injuries by winning more games and players keep improving as they have, Calhoun may be proven right.

Posted by Phil Kasiecki at 07:15 PM on February 02, 2008

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