Don't be quick to label Pitt's fast start a surprise

Dixon coaching, Krauser at guard have team 17-0

National notebook

January 16, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They have a first-year head coach and a new starting point guard. Yet the Pittsburgh Panthers have far more experience with - and confidence in - Jamie Dixon and Carl Krauser than their respective resumes might indicate.

As a result, Pitt's 17-0 start this season shouldn't be considered a huge surprise.

Dixon, 38, spent eight years as an assistant under Ben Howland, first at Northern Arizona and later Pittsburgh, before taking over the Panthers when his former boss left last spring for UCLA.

Krauser, a 22-year-old redshirt sophomore who played behind former point guard Brandin Knight last season, leads the Panthers in scoring (15.8), assists (4.4) and writing messages on his basketball shoes.

"He's a different player than Brandin," Dixon said of Krauser, whose footwear missives are usually directed at his buddies back in the Bronx. "He's evolving but improving. People that saw him in high school are very surprised by his transition. It's a testament to his work ethic and coachability."

Just as a change in venue before last season from Fitzgerald Fieldhouse to the Petersen Events Center didn't alter the success of the program, neither has the change in leadership on the bench and on the court.

Playing all but their first three games at home, where a 36-game winning streak is now the nation's longest, the Panthers have silenced the skeptics about the inexperience of Dixon and Krauser.

Not even next week's games at Connecticut and against Syracuse should alter the perception.

"To be honest, we've already proved that we can play," said senior guard Julius Page, who made several big plays in Monday's 74-71 home win over Notre Dame. "Every single time we play a team, they say we're going to lose. They really don't want to respect us, but we really don't care either."

How does Dixon's start compare to those of other first-year coaches who have made the same kind of leap?

In recent years, only former North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge got out of the gate 17-0. (The record is 33 straight, by Bill Hodges of Indiana State, who had a fellow named Larry Bird in the lineup.)

Old hands

In college basketball's New Age, rarely does a coach have as experienced a team as Creighton's Dana Altman. The Blue Jays, who won their first 12 games this season before an 82-73 loss at Northern Iowa on Wednesday, now have four fifth-year seniors in the program.

"I think it's a tremendous advantage, physically and mentally," said Bradley coach Jim Les, whose Braves lost to Creighton earlier this season. "Being around the atmosphere of Dana, and being around the system, now you add that mental aspect and that's a lethal combination."

Altman has found a way to replace Kyle Korver, a second-team All-American last season who led Creighton in scoring the past three years, as well as in rebounding a year ago, when the Blue Jays finished a school-best 29-5 season with a first-round loss to Central Michigan in the NCAA tournament.

In fact, Altman has replaced Korver at least six ways: That's the number of players who have led Creighton in scoring so far.

Only one of them - sophomore guard Johnny Mathies, a junior-college transfer - has scored 20 points in a game. Mathies' role became vitally important when point guard Tyler McKinney wound up hospitalized this week with an eye infection.

"We've have a lot of guys pick it up a little bit," Altman said earlier this week during a Missouri Valley Conference teleconference. "Each guy we have returning has stepped it up."

Senior center Brody Deren leads the Blue Jays with a modest 11.3 points a game, and six others are scoring at least seven points a game. There are seven players in Altman's rotation averaging 21.9 minutes and no one is playing more than 28.6.

No reflection on Korver, but Creighton is more of a team this season.

"It's probably a little more enjoyable for everyone up and down the lineup," Deren said.

Saying their prayers

Given their status as a second-year Division I team with a top 50 schedule so far this season, the Mastodons of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne might be in need of some divine intervention.

The Mastodons - the moniker was derived from the fact that dinosaur bones were found on the campus a few years back - are led by NBA prospect David Simon but are led in prayer, before and after every game, by senior Keion Henderson.

Henderson is believed to be the only college athlete in the country who is an ordained minister with his own congregation.

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