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Pitt will need time to reflect on great season

| Sunday, March 30, 2003

The images were frozen in time: Brandin Knight being consoled by Marquette coach Tom Crean. Donatas Zavackas sitting alone on the bench with his face buried in his hands. Jaron Brown standing in the corner of the locker room, tears streaming down his cheeks.

On a blustery evening in Minneapolis, time ran out on the Pitt basketball season.

There would be no Elite Eight encounter with Kentucky. No trip to New Orleans for the Final Four. No national championship.

The harsh reality set in after the Panthers endured a 77-74 loss to Marquette in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night in a Midwest Regional semifinal at the Metrodome.

All at once, the final chapter of the 2002-03 season had been written, a season that saw the Panthers win their first-ever Big East tournament championship, finish 28-5 and earn a second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16, will go down as one of the best in school history.

Someday soon, Pitt will relish all it accomplished. But for now, the pain of a second consecutive loss in the Sweet 16 is too great.

"We had a chance ... We didn't get it done ... it's simple," senior leader Knight said, biting off his words. "That's it for the seniors. We'll never wear these uniforms again."

As he spoke, Knight's head dropped. He did all he could to maintain his composure as he pulled off his No. 20 jersey for the final time. The next time the No. 20 is seen at a Pitt basketball game, it could be hanging from the rafters of Petersen Events Center next to the retired jerseys of Billy Knight, Don Hennon and Charles Smith.

Knight is worthy of having his number immortalized, after leading the Panthers to back-to-back Big East regular-season titles, an 89-40 record in his four years and a 57-11 mark the past two seasons, which is tied with Duke for the best two-season mark in college basketball.

He was the lifeblood of a team that entered the season ranked No. 4 by ESPN/USA Today and No. 5 by The Associated Press, a team that raced to a 9-0 record and twice had chances to move to No. 1 in the polls before untimely losses to Georgia and Syracuse, a team that ranked in the top five nationally in field-goal percentage defense and field-goal percentage offense, a team that is firmly back on the national radar screen.

Four members of the 2002-03 Pitt team were All-Big East picks -- Knight (second-team), junior guard Julius Page (third-team), sophomore forward Chevon Troutman (third-team) and senior center Ontario Lett (honorable mention) -- and a fifth, junior guard Jaron Brown, was surprisingly omitted.

The Panthers finished with a 13-3 mark in the Big East for the second consecutive season, went 16-0 in the inaugural season at the $100 million Petersen Center and had reeled off an 11-game winning streak before the loss to Marquette, which upset No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday in the Elite Eight and could ride the shoulders of super-guard Dwyane Wade all the way to the national championship.

Perhaps, Pitt had the misfortune of facing the hottest team in the country in Marquette. Many thought that the Panthers were national title contenders, but based on Marquette's recent success, they may have ran into a buzzsaw at the wrong time.

"It still doesn't diminish what these guys have accomplished," fourth-year coach Ben Howland said. "These seniors -- Zavackas, Knight and Lett -- and all those guys have laid a very good foundation."

These questions now are: Can the Panthers duplicate their two-year run of success• Can they go further than the Sweet 16 in 2003-04• Will the program survive without Knight?

The potential is there, with starters Page (12.2 points per game) and Brown (10.6) returning, along with Troutman (10.9). That trio could give Pitt the best shooting guard, small forward and power forward combination in the Big East, if not the nation.

Page, 6-foot-3, has established himself as one of the best on-ball defenders in the NCAA and could be ready to take over the leadership role that had been handled by Knight the past four seasons. Brown, 6-4, was arguably Pitt's top player in the postseason, with 19 points and 10 rebounds in the Big East Tournament final against Connecticut and 20 points on 8 of 9 shooting in a second-round NCAA Tournament win over Indiana, and has been in Howland's system for four years.

Troutman, 6-7, asserted himself midway through his freshman season and was among the most dominant big men in the Big East this season, as he connected on 71.3 percent of his shots.

Joining Troutman, Page and Brown in the starting lineup would likely be 6-2 freshman point guard Carl Krauser, a Pearl Washington-type who gained a better understanding of the Pitt offense in the second half of the season, and 6-11 center Toree Morris, who began the season as a starter, but was unseated by Lett. Morris started 32 of 35 games as a sophomore and averaged 3.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 12.5 minutes this season.

The Panthers also bring in four freshmen in 6-10 Walter Waters of Detroit, 7-0 Aaron Gray of Emmaus, Pa., 6-7 Chris Taft of Brooklyn and 6-8 Dante Milligan of New York. All are top 100 players, according to most recruiting services. Taft is regarded as the best of the bunch and the one who could come in and contribute immediately.

Additionally, 6-6 forward Ed Turner and 6-9 forward Levon Kendall practiced with the team this past season as redshirts and could contribute as freshmen, while sophomore guard Yuri Demetris and sophomore forward Mark McCarroll will look for more playing time.

A concern heading into 2003-04 is the team's lack of depth at guard. They have no true point guard other than Krauser, which is why they've stayed involved with a number of junior college point guards in the event that a scholarship would open up due to a transfer.

Troutman likes the nucleus for next season with the players the Panthers have.

"We're going to be one of the biggest teams in the country," he said. "We have a lot of new faces stepping into the scene and a lot of returnees. We just need to keep going one goal at a time. We won the Big East tournament championship this year. We went back to the Sweet 16. The next step is to win the Sweet 16 and come back and get into the Elite Eight. And, if we don't finish our goals next year, we still have time down the road.

"We're very established right now. We just gotta keep on wining games and come out and play like we did the past couple of years."

The key could be Krauser, who said he's prepared to take over after averaging 6.1 points and 2.9 assists in 18.6 minutes.

"I'm ready to step up," Krauser said. "It's definitely my time. We're trying to make it the Sweet 16 again and go further. I think I can take us there. I was able to work under Brandin and it did a lot for me. I understand what it takes to win and I'm willing to handle the burden.

"We lost some talent, but we're going to gain some talent, too. Jaron's back, Julius is back, I'm back, Toree's back, Chevy's back. And, when you add the new fresh legs, this team can win Big East Tournaments and go to the NCAA's for a long time. We're going to learn from what happened this year, then be better because of it."

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