- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

The animals at Oakland Zoo have worked up quite an appetite this college basketball season. Thus far, their beloved Pittsburgh Panthers have provided many delicacies for the feeding frenzy.
The "Zoo" represents the University of Pittsburgh's version of Duke's "Cameron Crazies" a rabid bunch of student supporters who help provide a substantial homecourt advantage. The difference is in past years the Panthers didn't have a team of Duke's caliber; now they're ranked ahead of the Blue Devils.
Under coach Ben Howland, the Panthers (14-1) have grown from a middle-of-the-pack Big East squad to national title contenders in his three-plus seasons. They won 13 games in his first, 19 in his second and a school-record 29 in 2001-02, sending them to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 10 seasons and on to the Sweet 16.
The Panthers are looking even better this season. After beating conference contenders Notre Dame and Syracuse, they're 4-0 in Big East play for the first time since they joined the league 21 years ago and are ranked No.2. Today, they will welcome the Georgetown Hoyas (10-4, 2-2 Big East) to their new 12,500-seat arena, the Petersen Events Center, where they are 10-0 this season, and the Oakland Zoo will be waiting. (The university is located in the Oakland section of the city.)
"It's been a huge change," junior guard Julius Page said. "Now, they've got this thing going, the Oakland Zoo. Before, you'd barely see any students at the games."
Howland has been steadily building the program since he was hired. Senior point guard Brandin Knight is the man TV analysts and others identify as Pittsburgh's big-name player, but he is only one of four current starters who were solid contributors the last two seasons. They help form the most balanced team in the Big East, with six players averaging at least 9.3 points and Page leading the group at 12.9. The Panthers have had a different leading scorer in each of their last seven games.
"They've done a great job in terms of them being better than the sum of their parts," Georgetown coach Craig Esherick said. "Their players are better than people give them credit for. … They have some guys who can play, but they also have guys who can play together."
There's a simple explanation for the Panthers' balance: They don't rely on one or two particular players to fill the roles of distributer, scorer, rebounder. They work to execute Howland's offense, then take the best shot available. When it's played right, the system is successful: Pittsburgh ranks second nationally in both field goal percentage and assists despite playing without a player taller than 6-foot-8 in the regular rotation. The Panthers score effectively because they find the open man and take good shots.
There's a similar team-grounded concept with its stifling man-to-man defense and on the boards; Pittsburgh is third nationally in field goal percentage defense and second in rebounding margin. The Panthers took on a stern test last weekend against Syracuse and freshman Carmelo Anthony. Pittsburgh held him to 14 points, nine below his Big East-leading average.
"We understand what we're out to do force bad shots," Page said. "We don't gamble for steals or block shots. We make shots difficult, box out and get the rebound."
The only blemish on the Panthers' record was a road loss to Georgia on Dec.31, and they reacted with five straight victories, three at home. And when opponents come to the Zoo, it's no field trip.

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