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Football-minded Pitt polishes long lusterless basketball program

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In 83 years of intercollegiate competition the most famous athlete to play basketball for the University of Pittsburgh has undoubtedly been Mike Ditka. That isn't too surprising, really, in a city where football has always been king, or in a school best known for producing the likes of Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, etc., as well as nine national gridiron championships.

Even the most avid basketball fans probably realize that their sport isn't about to push this sort of tradition into the background overnight. But the 1987-88 team is carving out its own special niche - and rewriting quite a bit of Panther hoop history in the process.

Pitt completed the regular season with a 23-6 record, its first outright Big East title, and a No. 7 or 8 national ranking depending upon which wire service poll you use. That's the highest any Pitt team has finished since the inception of these polls, and now as the NCAA tournament begins this weekend the Panthers are eyeing still loftier plateaus - perhaps even a first-ever appearance in the Final Four.

All this is heady stuff for a basketball program that not long ago seemed to be a perennial disappointment. But starting in 1984 with the recruiting of the super-talented 6 ft. 10 in. Charles Smith and continuing the following year with the arrival of the spectacular Jerome Lane, things started looking up. Smith's fellow senior Demetrius Gore has also developed into a top-notch performer, joining the other two to form a starting frontcourt that may well be the best in the country.

Indeed, the moment Smith decided to return for his senior season rather than turn pro, everybody knew the Panthers were going to be hard to beat. Just how hard would depend primarily upon an outstanding corps of freshmen that was being called upon to fill both starting backcourt positions plus a couple of key reserve spots.

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