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A Smooth Pitt Stop

Howland puts Panthers back on basketball map

January 28, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

It didn't take long after Ben Howland became the men's basketball coach at Pittsburgh for a Big East coach to seek a scouting report from Howland's former boss.

"Jim Boeheim wanted to know about this Ben Howland," said Jerry Pimm, who coached at UC Santa Barbara for 15 seasons, with Howland as his assistant for 11.

"I told him, 'He's a winner. He's going to make a splash in the Big East,' " Pimm said. "Jim looked at me with a little bit of cockiness, and he said, 'The East is a little different from the West.' "

Or maybe not.

Three seasons after leaving Northern Arizona to take over a losing Pitt program, Howland was national coach of the year last season, having taken the Panthers to the Sweet 16 and having won a school-record 29 games.

This season, the Panthers are ranked second in the nation and considered a Final Four contender with their blend of grinding defense, disciplined offense and good old-fashioned Big East toughness.

Boeheim, the Syracuse coach, has long since granted that Pimm was right.

Many a Big East assistant has failed after coming West to start his career as a head coach -- Rod Baker at UC Irvine, John Olive at Loyola Marymount, Wayne Morgan at Long Beach State -- but Howland made the transition work in the other direction.

He has displayed a remarkable ability to adjust to the circumstances -- East or West, Big West, Big Sky or Big East.

At Northern Arizona, where the Lumberjacks had little hope of recruiting big-city athletes, Howland sought out small-town shooters.

His teams twice led the nation in three-point shooting -- coming within a three-pointer of taking second-seeded Cincinnati to overtime in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament.

At Pitt, the first thing he did was help make sure point guard Brandin Knight would stick around. Knight had signed before Howland was hired, but Howland had Stanford's Mike Montgomery, who had coached Brandin's brother Brevin, reassure Knight's parents.

Then Howland seemingly changed his style, recruiting a bunch of brawny urban bruisers to compete in the Big East.

"He's done a good job, working with the kind of player he can get wherever he's been," said Utah Coach Rick Majerus, such a close friend that Howland introduced Majerus to the woman Majerus is dating.

"He did a great job at Northern Arizona, and he's done a great job at Pitt," Majerus said. "He's a very hard-driven basketball guy. I think players sense his passion."

That passion leads him to figure out exactly what will work where.

In stark contrast to those Northern Arizona teams, Howland's Panthers rank nowhere near the top of the NCAA three-point shooting list.

But they are among the top handful of teams in defensive field-goal percentage (36.6%) and rebounding, with a margin of nearly 12 a game.

"Playing for him, he only asks you to do two things: Play defense and rebound," Knight said.

What might surprise people more is that at the moment, Pitt ranks No. 1 in offensive field-goal percentage at 51.9%.

That isn't the result of a stable of lights-out shooters, but rather the way the Panthers play, moving the ball around, searching for open, high-percentage shots.

"We rarely have guys take bad shots," Knight said. "As much as I watch basketball, I never paid much attention to good shots and bad shots and how shot selection sometimes determines a game. Now, when I'm watching games, I sound like Coach Howland saying, 'That was a bad shot.' "

As shooting guard Julius Page put it, "We share the ball. That's tough for other teams. It takes a lot of discipline to play tough defense for 25 seconds or so."

At 45, Howland would seem to have found his niche at Pittsburgh. The school has a sparkling new 12,500-seat arena, and Howland isn't the only family member on the sideline: His daughter, Meredith, is a cheerleader.

How he ended up having his great success so far from home -- he grew up in Santa Barbara and played two seasons at Cerritos High before playing at Santa Barbara City College and Weber State -- is a question to ask a lot of Southland athletic directors.

Howland's career is the story of how a good coach can be passed over, time and again, before he gets his chance.

It sometimes seems as if half the schools in the Southland turned him down at one time or another, among them UC Irvine -- twice -- Loyola Marymount, and most disheartening of all, Santa Barbara.

"It's hard to get a job," Howland said. "There are more lawyers within a five-mile radius of wherever you're sitting than there are Division I jobs.

"Northern Arizona was a job no one had ever survived, and a lot of people said I was crazy to take it. But to build a program and win there gave me a lot of confidence when people said we couldn't do it at Pitt."

Pittsburgh was never on his radar. It was always Santa Barbara, where his mother and his father, a retired Presbyterian minister, still live.

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