Gritty Panthers modeled after Pittsburgh

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The identity of the city of Pittsburgh has always belonged to the Steelers. From the Steel Curtain to bullish Franco Harris to even more bullish Jerome Bettis to blue-collar Ben Roethlisberger, the city's love affair with its football team is rooted as much in the Steelers' identity as it is in their success.

The steel mill may no longer run the city, but the dirt and grime that defined the toughness of the steelworkers remains.

Pittsburgh is a city where you order a shot and a beer.


You don't say mamby pamby y'all. It's yinz, thank you very much. Your shirt doesn't need to be ironed. It needs ironed. Why waste breath on those two little words, to and be?

It's cold. It's hilly. It's rough.

And it's tough, which is what the Steelers always have been.

But up on the hill in Oakland, there perhaps is a team that even better epitomizes what a Pittsburgher wants to be.

The Pittsburgh Panthers aren't just tough. They are the classic underdogs, annually counted out to comical proportions.

Jamie Dixon's band of misfit toys all were very good players in high school, but none were quite the great ones.

Jermaine Dixon? He needed to go to junior college.

Gilbert Brown? He was in the mix for McDonald's All-American status, but didn't quite make the cut.

Ashton Gibbs? He was an all-stater, not an All-American.

And yet here they are again. Picked to finish ninth in the Big East in the preseason, the Panthers instead sit atop the standings, joining Villanova as the only undefeated teams in the conference.

And naturally befitting its nature, Pittsburgh has ascended the mountain the hard way. With their 67-57 win at Connecticut on Wednesday night, the Panthers are now 4-0 in the league, winning three of those in some of the toughest gyms in the Big East -- at Syracuse, at Cincinnati and now at UConn.

"That's definitely who we are, underdogs," Brown said. "Nobody ever picks us. Everybody always counts us out and we just keep on playing."

Even the most faithful of fans, though, couldn't have seen this coming. The Panthers lost four starters who combined for 286 career starts, 4,714 points and were but one Scottie Reynolds buzzer-beater away from last year's Final Four. In their place stood the most inexperienced roster in the Big East, one that included six freshmen, two sophomores and just two seniors.

And when one of those seniors and the lone returning starter, Jermaine Dixon, went down with a foot injury in the offseason and Brown, a junior and regular contributor off the bench, was suspended for academics in the first semester, Pitt's remaining roster had a grand total of one game start.

While they waited for Dixon and Brown to return, the Panthers were waxed by Texas, needed two overtimes to beat Duquesne and lost to Indiana, making that ninth-place prediction look pretty smart.

"The hardest part was we didn't have anyone to show them how it's done," Jamie Dixon said. "Jermaine is the toughest guy we have and when you want to develop toughness, it's kind of hard when you don't have an example, or your example is sitting over there in a cast."

Dixon dismisses the notion that his younger players grew up while they waited on their two teammates to return, but against UConn, those fresh faces sure looked more poised than players of their experience have a right to be.

They led early and blew it.

They led again in the second half and blew it.

And they never blinked.

Pitt surrendered a 10-point lead in the second half with an 8:49 run of offensive ineptitude, managing just one field goal as Connecticut went to guards Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker to retake the lead.

But just when it looked as if the Huskies were going to rock the building and pull away, Gibbs nailed a 3-pointer in transition that simultaneously sucked the life out of both the XL Center and UConn.

"Brad [Wanamaker] just made a great read and kicked it to me in the corner," said Gibbs, who finished with 19 points. "It was a key point in the game."

That Gibbs made it goes back to the underdog/underrated stigma on this team. A year ago, Gibbs averaged 4.3 points per game, caught in a logjam behind seasoned players.

After a summer helping the United States Under-19 team to a gold medal, he turned himself into a gym rat, logging countless hours by himself to get better.

The result? He's now the second most-improved player in the country in terms of scoring, his average up an incredible 13.2 points from last year.

"It's all about being tough," Gibbs said. "That's who we are. That's the kind of players coach Dixon recruits. We want to bring it to people every night."

On the flip side, Connecticut wants to bring it on occasion. The stories in the opposing locker rooms couldn't have been more different after this game, with the Panthers puffing their chests for their ability to withstand a hostile environment and prove the doubters wrong and Connecticut left shaking their heads and wondering how to solve their disturbing trend of disappearing acts during games.

The Huskies have talent and athleticism and experience. What they don't have is a team that understands that turning the jets on and off won't get it done. It left Jim Calhoun angry and frustrated, but more marveling at what Pitt has and what he doesn't right now.

"Everyone has talked about what a great job Jimmy [Boeheim] has done this year and he has, but no one had more of a replacement job than Jamie," Calhoun said. "I don't know who in the country is doing a better job than him. He has very good players and he has ingrained the Pittsburgh system in them wonderfully. They play tough and they dominate a game. Our team, before the game I said we weren't too far away. Well, we're farther away than I thought."

And Pitt is better than anyone thought.

Now for the note of caution: it's early. As someone tweeted after the win, the Steelers were 6-2 and Super Bowl-bound at one point this season. They ended up missing the playoffs.

Fair enough. The Panthers do have some issues, most notably the lack of a true point guard, which can be a hard road to hoe in the Big East. Backup Travon Woodall is the most natural fit but isn't ready to be a Big East point guard just yet, which leaves Gibbs in charge.

But four games in, the Panthers are atop the league and staring down from a pretty sweet view in the catbird's seat. Nine of their final 15 games are at the Petersen Events Center, where they are currently riding a 30-game win streak. They face six teams in the top half of the league, but get four of them at home.

"We saw this coming," Wanamaker said. "We knew at practice what kind of players we had and what we were capable of, but nobody else believed it. We didn't care. Most of us growing up, we were the underdogs. Nobody thought much about us until we went out and played and changed people's opinions. That's just us."

Yes, that's just Pittsburgh, the city and the team that personifies it.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.