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Pitt's Lett living Big East dream

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2002

Nobody needs to tell Ontario Lett what Big East basketball is all about.

He's seen it on TV. He's broken it down on film. He's pictured it in his mind a thousand times.

That's why the junior center from Pitt is armed and ready for tonight's conference opener between the Panthers (12-1) and St. John's (9-2) at Fitzgerald Field House.

"It doesn't matter where you come from, the Big East is known everywhere," said Lett, a junior-college transfer from Pensacola Community College who is in his first season of Division I basketball. "I grew up watching all the great teams, all the programs like St. John's, Georgetown, Syracuse. I always wanted to play for or against those teams one day.

"Now, it's finally happening."

Lett, who didn't sign at Pitt until the end of summer, has been a pleasant surprise on a team that is chock-full of them this season. And he's a primary reason the Panthers are off to their best start since 1987-88, when they finished 24-7 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

He averages 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, but ... can he sustain his strong play against Big East-caliber competition•

Lett didn't flinch when the question was posed to him.

St.John's (9-2, 0-0 Big East) at Pitt (12-1, 0-0)
  • Game info: 7:30 p.m., Fitzgerald Field House (6,798)

  • On the air: FOXSP/WRRK-FM (96.9)

  • Probable starters: St. John's, Anthony Glover, F, 6-6, Sr., 13.6 ppg., 6.7 rpg.; Eric King, F, 6-6, Fr., 6.2, 4.2; Mohammed Diakte, C, 6-11, Soph., 2.3, 1.3; Marcus Hatten, G, Jr., 6-1, 17.9, 5.3; Willie Shaw, G, 6-6, Soph., 7.9, 2.5. Pitt , Jaron Brown, F, 6-4, Soph., 9.5, 5.5; Donatas Zavackas, F, 6-8, Jr., 12.1, 5.0; Toree Morris, C, 6-10, Soph., 6.1, 4.9; Julius Page, G, 6-3, Soph., 10.2, 3.5; Brandin Knight, G, 6-0, Jr., 15.3, 4.7.

  • Coaches: St. John's, Mike Jarvis (fourth year, 76-34); Pitt, Ben Howland (third year, 44-30).

  • The skinny: St. John's has won five games in a row, and a big reason for that is its ability to force turnovers. The Red Storm have forced an average of 21.9 per game over the past eight outings. Junior college transfer Marcus Hatten has been a welcome addition to a St. John's team that was shaky at the point guard position when Omar Cook left early for the NBA at the end of last season. Hatten averages 17.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Pitt comes into this game riding a seven-game winning streak, including a 13-point victory over St. Francis (N.Y.) on Saturday.

  • Key matchup: Pitt guard Brandin Knight against St. John's Hatten. These two players can light it up, as both average better than 15 points per game.

  • Worth noting: Pitt leads the NCAA in scoring defense at 54.2 points per game.
  • "It's not like I'm going to be intimidated or anything," said Lett, who scored 16 and 15 points, respectively, against Big Ten foes Penn State and Ohio State in Pitt victories earlier this season. "They're human just like me, so there's nothing to be scared of. I know I need to pick my game up, but I'll do that. I'll be ready."

    If the Panthers continue to receive solid production out of Lett, they have a shot at finishing with a record of .500 or better in conference play, which has eluded them the past four seasons. An 8-8 mark in the league would give them 20 victories and a likely berth in the NCAA Tournament.

    But, first things first.

    "We have to win this one, then build off of it," said Lett, who rotates with sophomore Toree Morris at center. "We can't look too far ahead. We have goals, but we have to focus on each individual game, have to find out if we can compete. St. John's will be a test."

    Added coach Ben Howland: "There are three parts to a season - non-conference, conference and, hopefully, postseason. This is the conference portion for us, the meat of it. Every team we're going to play from here on out will be tough. There are no breathers in this league."

    Howland's Panthers will find that out against a St. John's team that has won five in row since a 17-point loss to Manhattan last month. Leading the way is hot-shooting junior guard Marcus Hatten, who scored 26 points against Wake Forest and 22 against Quinnipiac in the Red Storm's past two victories.

    Hatten, a junior college transfer, has eased the loss of Omar Cook, who left school early at the end of last season for the NBA. He is complemented by athletic senior forward Anthony Glover, who averages 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

    "St. John's is a very well-coached, athletic basketball team," Howland said. "We'll find out something about ourselves in this game."

    The last meeting between Pitt and St. John's occurred two years ago in New York, where the Red Storm raced to a 32-point first-half lead and defeated the Panthers, 82-58.

    Pitt junior guard Brandin Knight made his Big East debut in that game, just as Lett will tonight.

    "Let's hope it isn't that way again," Knight said. "Not just for Ontario, but for all the guys. I'm still a little bitter about my first Big East experience. I'd like to get them back for that. It was a tough way to start by Big East career."

    Lett is hoping for a better beginning to his conference career.

    "A win would be real nice," Lett said. "Not only would it be a great start, but it would prove to everybody that our team is for real. We've heard a lot about us not playing a tough schedule and that we haven't done anything yet, so this would be a statement. We just have to get the job done."

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