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College

Is this the year?

| Friday, Oct. 15, 2004

It is, in all likelihood, the question of the preseason among college basketball circles around the region.

How good will the Pitt Panthers be•

"We need some guys to step up. We need some surprises," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.

Come Saturday, the first official day of practice, Dixon should receive some hints at Pitt's Petersen Events Center.

The fate of Pitt this season may be the hottest question in the district, but it's not the only one.

Will Duquesne finally have another winning season and position itself for a long-awaited postseason run• Will Robert Morris move to the head of the Northeast Conference again and perhaps earn an another automatic bid to the NCAAs•

Now there's a story for the ages: Three NCAA Division I programs from Pittsburgh in the postseason in one year -- something that's never before happened.

"We want our city to do well," Robert Morris coach Mark Schmidt said. "There is no jealousy. I want Duquesne and Pitt to have success, as well as us."

Among the Colonials' three returning starters, forward Chaz McCrommon (17.0 ppg.) and guard Maurice Carter (14.9) were 1-2 in scoring last season.

"The more we win, the better it is for basketball in the area. Everybody looks at Pittsburgh as the Steelers and high school football, and maybe wrestling. Basketball has taken a back seat for a number of years. Pitt, with it's success the past three or four years, has changed a little bit of that."

All three teams are scheduled to face each other this season. Pitt hosts Robert Morris on Nov. 24 and Duquesne for the annual City Game on Dec. 4. Duquesne visits Robert Morris on Dec. 29.

"The more we can win -- not just Pitt, but Duquesne and us -- it changes the dynamics of basketball," said Schmidt, who is entering his fourth year at Robert Morris. "I want them to do well, and from a selfish point of view, I think if Pitt and Duquesne are successful, it gives a better basketball identity to the city."

Duquesne coach Danny Nee agreed that the time is here for basketball to step up, and he is certain Duquesne will be an intregal part of it.

"Our program is getting stronger. There's absolutely no question about that," said Nee, whose Dukes finished 12-17 last season but lost five games each by less than six points. "We have some consistency and continuity with our coaching staff, the players coming in and their expectations. We've got the right guys on the bus."

Among Duquesne's returnees are guards Martin Osimani, the Atlantic 10 Conference leader in assists (5.9 apg.) last season, Bryant McAllister (11.1 ppg.) and Jack Higgins (9.7 ppg.), and center Kieron Achara (33 blocks as a freshman).

For Pitt, which has been transformed into a national power in such a short time span, 14 players and five coaches will embark on yet another five-month journey filled with high expectations, question marks, veteran players and neophytes.

At the center of it all is Dixon, the second-year coach who is fresh off a rookie season that saw him lead the Panthers to a 31-5 record, the Big East Conference regular-season title and a third consecutive berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Dixon, the 2003-04 Big East coach of the year, returns savvy veterans in senior forward Chevon Troutman (9.8 ppg.), junior point guard Carl Krauser (15.4) and sophomore center Chris Taft (10.9). But he also introduces into the mix freshman guards Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon, along with junior-college swingman John DeGroat.

For Dixon, the reality is that this is a transition year for the Panthers, a team that can no longer rely on fixtures such as Jaron Brown and Julius Page. The talent level arguably is as good as it's ever been, but that isn't necessarily a recipe for success.

"We'll get it together," Krauser said. "I want to lead this team, and I'll do whatever is necessary to get us past the Sweet 16 and into the national championship."

Pitt is no different than most teams in the area. Duquesne, Robert Morris, West Virginia and Penn State are in transition, as well. The Panthers might have the marquee name, but there's reason to believe that others could end up in postseason play.

"I do like this team, but we have to have the ball bounce our way," said third-year West Virginia coach John Beilein, who returns all five starters from a 17-14 team, which lost to Rutgers 67-64 in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament last season.

Penn State coach Ed DeChellis enters his second year in Happy Valley. DeChellis, a Beaver County native who recently was inducted into the Center High School Athletic Hall of Fame, has set his sights on rebuilding the Nittany Lions' program in a hurry.

But, he said, "There aren't any shortcuts. It takes time. I was at East Tennessee State, and it was like it was here: We weren't very good. But we turned it around."

Staff writers Joe Bendel, JoAnne Klimovich Harrop and Ryan Buncher contributed to this report.

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