PITTSBURGH — When Georgetown Coach John Thompson said last November that he believed Pittsburgh would be the Big East team to beat by February, Paul Evans said he thought "it was a case of one of the older guys on the block trying to take advantage of the newest guy."
Evans, Pittsburgh's first-year coach, knows better now. The newest guy is in first place in the Big East. He has the best rebounder in the nation in Jerome Lane, maybe the second-best center in the nation in Charles Smith, a team that has lost only one game all season on the road, and a group of players who have gone from being perceived as a bunch of selfish, underachievers to solid contenders for the NCAA Final Four.
Eighth-ranked Pittsburgh is a team completely rejuvenated from last season. Going into Wednesday night's game against Georgetown, Pittsburgh had won eight straight games, had not lost a Big East road game and may prove Thompson a reluctant prophet.
You know the Panthers have arrived because one of the Pittsburgh players, irrepressible junior swing man Demetreus Gore, has made a rap video, called "Pitt on the Rise."
"Listen everybody to what I am sayin'
Pitt is on the rise and there's no delayin'
Excitin' the crowds with the style we're playin'
And all our adversaries we'll be slayin' "
A year ago, while Roy Chipman was struggling as a lame-duck coach (he resigned in December, effective at the end of the season), there was more moanin' than rappin' on The Hill. Lane, who leads the nation with 13.4 rebounds per game, said he would rather be benched than play power forward. Smith simply refused to play center, as Chipman had ordered. Gore and Curtis Aiken did too much shooting from outside, and the Panthers lost nine of their last 11 games. The joke on campus was that discipline was an elective.
"We just wanted the season to be over," Lane said. "We didn't even want to play any more games. Nobody was really into it. They came, they really didn't care. Show up for practice, nobody really wanted to practice. Come in and do what you want to do, people were fighting each other."
So why have the Panthers changed so dramatically?
Evans is the primary reason. Or just the threat of Evans, the former Naval Academy coach whose success in six seasons at Annapolis led the Pitt decision-makers to believe he might just be another Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski, two other disciplinarians who coached at service academies.
Evans considered going to Northwestern, but he wanted a job "where the cupboard wasn't bare," and Pittsburgh certainly had players. But the Panthers were so scared Evans would bring a lot of spit-shine-Mess Hall-atten-HUT discipline to Pittsburgh, they decided among themselves to straighten up before Evans even got to campus.
Freshman Rod Brookin already had signed with Chipman when he turned on the TV in March and saw Evans taking Navy to the final eight of the NCAA tournament. "I saw this coach really losing his mind on the sideline. I turned to my brother and and said, 'I hope I don't ever have to be coached by a guy like that.' Then, (Pittsburgh) hired him. I didn't know what to think."
Lane knew. "You just expected, that coming from Navy, he'd be a hard-nosed dude. He changed Navy around and we figured the same thing could happen with us."
Exactly. The Panthers of last season (15-14, 6-10 in the Big East) are 21-4, 10-2 in the league. Evans came in and said, "Last year you did it your way and you saw the results; this year we are going to do it my way."
Asked if there was any talk of players transferring when he took the job, Evans said, "Yeah, from me. I told them if anybody didn't want to do it my way, you're welcome to hit the door."
Players didn't dare pout about what positions they were assigned. No one even dared to throw that old Panthers favorite, the behind-the-back pass.
"The fourth week of practice, somebody tried a behind-the-back," Lane said. "No need for me to tell you his reaction 'cause you can't print it, anyway."
This week in practice, Smith, a 6-10 center who sometimes plays too much like the gentleman he is, threw up a finesse shot when Evans wanted a dunk. "Join the damn ballet," Evans screamed. When Evans heard that Lane used to go from the coach's best pal to the doghouse under Chipman, the new coach explained there would be no further inconsistencies "because for the next three years, Jerome, I'm going to be a complete SOB to you every day."
The players have responded even better than Evans expected. And he also found their unruly and uncoachable reputation was exaggerated. "The perception from a lot of people is that they were just a bunch of thugs," Evans said. "When I got here, I discovered that they're good kids. I met with Curtis Aiken when I first took the job and he said to me, 'We've got good guys here. Jerome is a little immature, but that's about it.' "
To change the public's perception of his team, Evans had several players appear at banquets and community functions, at which they were exceedingly charming. To change the way they played, Evans altered just about everything.
Evans found that Smith, his All-America candidate, didn't even know how to shoot a left-handed layup properly. Smith, whom Evans moved to the high post two weeks ago, has averaged 17 points and nine rebounds a game and has won three recent games with last-second heroics.