Football-minded Pitt polishes long lusterless basketball program

In 83 years of intercollegiate competition the most famous athlete to play basketball for the University of Pittsburgh has undoubtedly been Mike Ditka. That isn't too surprising, really, in a city where football has always been king, or in a school best known for producing the likes of Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, etc., as well as nine national gridiron championships.

Even the most avid basketball fans probably realize that their sport isn't about to push this sort of tradition into the background overnight. But the 1987-88 team is carving out its own special niche - and rewriting quite a bit of Panther hoop history in the process.

Pitt completed the regular season with a 23-6 record, its first outright Big East title, and a No. 7 or 8 national ranking depending upon which wire service poll you use. That's the highest any Pitt team has finished since the inception of these polls, and now as the NCAA tournament begins this weekend the Panthers are eyeing still loftier plateaus - perhaps even a first-ever appearance in the Final Four.

All this is heady stuff for a basketball program that not long ago seemed to be a perennial disappointment. But starting in 1984 with the recruiting of the super-talented 6 ft. 10 in. Charles Smith and continuing the following year with the arrival of the spectacular Jerome Lane, things started looking up. Smith's fellow senior Demetrius Gore has also developed into a top-notch performer, joining the other two to form a starting frontcourt that may well be the best in the country.

Indeed, the moment Smith decided to return for his senior season rather than turn pro, everybody knew the Panthers were going to be hard to beat. Just how hard would depend primarily upon an outstanding corps of freshmen that was being called upon to fill both starting backcourt positions plus a couple of key reserve spots.

That's a lot to ask of first-year players, and no one would have been surprised at a slow start. But the Panthers went 9-0 and zoomed to No. 2 in the polls before getting sidetracked by Georgetown in their conference opener. Such nights were rare throughout the season, though, as the final record shows, and they climaxed it all by marching into the Carrier Dome and beating Syracuse 85-84 in the regular-season finale to nail down the Big East title.

An upset loss to Villanova in the semifinals of the post-season tournament here prevented them from making a clean sweep of conference honors, but didn't really alter the overall picture much. The Panthers are still seeded No. 2 in the NCAA Midwest Regional at Lincoln, Neb., where they are expected to get past Eastern Michigan without too much trouble in their initial test tonight.

The architect of Pitt's basketball resurgence has been Paul Evans, now completing his second year as head coach after seven years at St. Lawrence and a most successful six-year stint at Navy, where his David Robinson-led team evolved into one of the best in Middie history.

Actually, it began under Evans's predecessor, Roy Chipman, who coached the Panthers from 1980-86, and who put together the frontcourt nucleus of the present team. The knock on Chipman's teams was that they were long on talent but short on discipline. Evans brought the iron fist that had been lacking - and has continued to score well in the recruiting game too, as seen by the number of freshmen playing key roles this year.

Evans also has displayed an ability to shuffle his personnel around according to the situation. Indeed, all three frontcourt starters are either definitely playing out of position or think they are. Smith, who was just named Big East Player of the Year, is a fluid, mobile big man who prefers a finesse game to the body banging under the basket and will almost certainly wind up as a forward in the pros, but who is needed at center on this team. Lane, 6-6, believes his natural spot is point guard, but his incredible leaping ability makes him too valuable a rebounder to play there right now - as he showed in 1986-87 by becoming the smallest college player since Elgin Baylor to lead the nation in that category. Gore, 6-5, was penciled into the backcourt only to get switched when the loss of Rod Brooklin via academic ineligibility created a greater need up front.

What has made all this work is the fine play of the freshmen guards - Sean Miller, who operates as the field general and was named Big East freshman of the year, plus Darelle Porter and Jason Matthews, one of whom starts, with the other joining freshman forward Bobby Martin among the first players in off the bench.

Although the Panthers were at times erratic during the season, they played well down the stretch and enter the tournament poised for a shot at going farther than any previous Pitt team in recent memory.

The school actually won a pair of ``mythical'' national championships in 1928 and 1930, but of course it was a different game then. And in the modern era, even if you stretch the definition to include the last half-century, there have been only occasional flashes of promise without any sort of continuing successful program.

Until now, the two most notable post-war periods came when Don Hennon and Billy Knight played for the school.

Hennon, a high-scoring 5 ft. 8 in. guard, earned national acclaim in the late 1950s, when he led the Panthers into the NCAA tournament twice in an era when many fewer teams made it. Ditka played in the same period, earning two basketball letters in addition to the All-America football honors that propelled him toward a pro career as a star tight end and now head coach of the Chicago Bears.

Knight, who eventually enjoyed an 11-year pro career, starred on the 1973-74 team that went to the Eastern Regional NCAA finals (the farthest any Pitt team has gone), before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina State.

That was pretty much the last big team until the current squad, which hopes to become the biggest one of all - and maybe even keep the minds of Pittsburgh's sports fans off football for another few weeks.

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