Eastern college basketball is dead, of course. Madison Square Garden killed it. Or the gamblers did. Or UCLA, or the Celtics. Or some maniac truck driver out of gas did. Everybody knows that all good Eastern dudes go away to college now to escape snow or dirt or hockey, and what the ECAC has left are a few thousand schools and universities named Bowdoin and Tufts and things like that. Philadelphia talent is down; the NIT is a beggar's market.
Yet anytime one turns around in the East there is Marvin Barnes at Providence playing like the best rebounder in the land, which he is. There is the most outrageous home crowd anywhere at Syracuse, led by "The Zoo" in the end-zone seats, which is so wildly obscene that the announcer has stopped introducing the starting lineups. And there, also, is that other team—that speck on the horizon of the national ratings that has been growing every week.
It started slowly with a record of 0-1, went to 5-1, 10-1, 15-1 and last week—what is this?—to 19-1. The East has a team at 19-1 with the longest winning streak in college? Yes, and even better, it is the same school that made a major turnaround in football. It is what you call your About-Face Headquarters School. It is Pittsburgh.
The Pitt Panthers, with their firetrap of a field house, their no-center offense and "amoeba" defense, their screwball cheerleader, their Knight to remember and their coach who grows geraniums in his suburban basement and decorates Christmas trees in the locker room. His name is Buzz.
When Pittsburgh defeated Syracuse 71-56 last Saturday, it was the latest victory of a devastating run in which the team has compiled a scoring differential of 19.8 points, second only to UCLA. In the process, most nights have belonged to Knight—Bill (Mooney) Knight, a 6'6½" mustachioed senior who can do everything but grow long hair. His teammates call Knight TWA for Teeny Weeny Afro, but when in trouble he is the one they look for. Having practically destroyed one of his square shoulders in a fall against Penn State, Knight recently had been a one-armed man of little value on the backboards—until Syracuse, that is.
His tender wing harnessed with tape, Knight exploded all over rickety Fitzgerald Field House, scoring off balance, blocking shots, rebounding, stealing passes, directing fast breaks and quick-handing everything in sight. Knight dominated the Orange's big men inside and outhustled their backcourt. In short, he ravaged Syracuse with 24 points and 19 rebounds, on one spree nailing 14 of 17 Pitt points to take the Panthers from a 45-40 lead to the easy win.
Along the way Pittsburgh did what really fine teams are wont to do—go for the other guy's jugular and make him look bad. The Panthers' marvelous junto of a defense beat quick Syracuse to every loose ball, disrupted the Orange patterns, stopped their star, Dennis DuVal, with eight points and held the visitors to a ripe 26 below their average.
It was Pittsburgh's most important victory of the season, for what it did was show the Panthers that they could withstand hardship (Mickey Martin, their other fine forward, was rendered useless by a leg injury), beat a reputable team and not have to apologize anymore.
It is fine irony that the Pitt schedule has been ridiculed as too easy, for it was only a few hours ago that alumni were berating Coach Buzz Ridl for scheduling way over his team's head and calling for his very scalp. As recently as last season the Panthers played UCLA, Notre Dame and North Carolina but, until Syracuse, this year's Pitt edition had faced no member of the top twenty.
Still, after a season-opening loss at West Virginia, Pitt has thrashed the opposition, winning only two games by fewer than 10 points; then too, the five teams with tournament potential that Pitt has played were bounced around easily.
How good are the Panthers? Even they would like to know. They are small, basically un-musclebound and lack that solo showtimer with the terrific moves (Knight being more steady than spectacular), but what they do, they do to perfection. And where they belong is up there among the best seven or eight teams in the whole NCAA.
It is a quick, deep, smart bunch of straight-up-and-down players with a special flair for passing and a passion for togetherness and unselfish movement. All have meshed fine seasons in order to positively wreck a deceptive schedule that has included some big names in down years (Duke, Duquesne) and some other teams that did not jell until after the Panthers got through with them (Florida State, Davidson).
Mooney Knight says, "I am still pessimistic about this team. A good, big center could kill us. I never dreamed we'd have this record, but all of us are curious to find out how far we can go."
Knight's modesty is becoming. He says he went to Pitt because he wasn't good enough to play at a bigger school, yet as a junior in those games against the aforementioned quality trio, he averaged nearly 32 points. Asked about his play when he got 37 against UCLA, Knight said simply, "Oh, all right I guess. I only got nine rebounds."
Two weeks ago, with the score tied at William and Mary in the Panthers' one pitiful show of the season, Knight drove for the winning basket but was whistled down for charging. Seven seconds were left, it was his fifth and disqualifying foul and the Panthers' streak was clearly in jeopardy. Nobody would have faulted Knight for screaming homer at what looked to be a terrible call. Instead he stared down and walked to the bench. Pitt won by six in overtime.
"There are no hotheads at Pittsburgh," says Ridl. "No grouches. I try to get the type of player who relates to me, not the other way around."
Ridl is 53, a plain white-haired grandfather figure from outside Pittsburgh. After coaching at tiny Westminster for 19 years, he moved to Pitt and the big time in 1968. He says it was the only major university job he would have taken. As a concession to the times, the coach buys soul records for the locker room. His wife charts turnovers at the games and knits bow ties for the players. Buzz says "oh, my" quite a lot.
In an age when multicolored shoes and double-knit mouths are all the coaching rage, Ridl and his old friend Fran Webster, who concocted the combination switching, shifting defense the Panthers call amoeba, seem out of place; at practice they are a couple of Rotarians who wandered into a counterculture freak-out. Outdoors, Buzz and Fran even wear hats. But there is respect. "Coach gets down to it," says Keith Starr, the sixth man. "He is all truth."
A younger assistant, Tim Grgurich (Pitt coaches seem to have dropped their vowels somewhere), does most of the recruiting; he does not have far to go. Nine of the first 11 Panthers are from the Pittsburgh area, and from a point on Mount Washington across the river one can see the homes of six players, including all five starters.
For some time Pittsburgh has been a fountainhead of infant talent and the home of the nation's best high school all-star game, the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic. But it used to be that if local kids stayed home they went to Duquesne. Beginning with Knight and Martin four years ago, that changed. Conversely, Pitt's grave weakness—the lack of a center—is the direct result of the Panthers having lost Maurice Lucas to Marquette. Lucas was from Schenley High, which can be seen without going to the mountain; it is across the street from the Pitt campus.
Presently the hulking, light-bulb-eating Jim Bolla plays the pivot, hatchets the enemy for 10 minutes, then gives way to Lew Hill, a slender 6'6" transfer from Ferrum Junior College, or to Walk-On Willie Kelly. With Knight and Martin patrolling the lanes and the equally swift Kirk Bruce and Tom Richards operating around the perimeters, the Panthers may be the quickest team in America. Starr and senior defensive specialist Ken Wagoner usually enter games in tandem to replace Bruce and Richards. And so the Panthers are always flowing in and out, confusing everybody with their constantly changing zone and man defenses, plainly wearing down the competition.
Knight has led the scoring and rebounding in all except two games, but Bruce, an exquisite shooter, made 22 points in the Panthers' 27-point rout at Davidson and had to save them with 19 more at William and Mary, including eight free throws in the overtime. Both Richards and Hill were high scorers before coming to Pitt but have adjusted. The latter scored 20 against Florida State and made all-tournament in the Steel Bowl while coming off the bench.
Even ninth man Kelly, who drifted into the gym one day carrying long spaghetti arms, has done his part. When Martin suffered food poisoning at Virginia, Kelly replaced him, made 12 points and sparkled on defense. Now he is Walk-On Willie the Rejector.
With all the success, it remained for a 30-year-old newspaper delivery boy named Tiger Paul Auslander to get the campus aroused to what was going on. Tiger Paul wears a white shirt, tie and old letter sweater as he leads the Pitt team onto the floor and conducts cheers from the sidelines. At one time the Tiger's antics, which include tearing off the sweater and tie, pinwheeling his arms, dashing into team huddles and belly-flopping along the hardwood, were an embarrassment to the school administration. But the students liked him so much he was allowed to stay, and even to go on road trips.
The other day Tiger Paul threw his arm out of whack exhorting the Panthers to another victory. Later, a radio announcer read off the Pitt hospital report: Knight—bruised shoulder. Martin—damaged thigh. Tiger Paul—pulled arm muscle. When you're 19-1, even the cheerleader's injury is news.