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The once punchless Panthers are now a Big East power

LET'S GET THIS STRAIGHT: Pittsburgh is into basketball now? The Pittsburgh of Chuck Noll, Mario Lemieux and Andrew Carnegie now belongs to Demetreus (Me? Or is it De? Or Who He?) Gore? The University of Pittsburgh? Ditka to Dorsett to Marino, the football Pitt? One of the very serious alltime, no-care, stinko pits of hoop—that Pitt?

It's enough to make a traditionalist smash his VCR rather than suffer one more verse of Pitt on the Rise, a rap video in which Gore, the Panthers' 6'5" junior swingman, draped in gold neck chains, sashays around mumbling something about "Gettin' all the boards/Like he is insane/Is that board-crashin' brother/Je-Rome Lane."

Je-Rome Whom?

Jerome (Rome) Lane, last season's surly, pouting freshman, now leads the nation in glass-sweeping with 13.1 boards per game—"I eat rebounding," says the burly (but barely) 6'6" power forward. The last men that short to lead the country in rebounding were Elgin Baylor of Seattle in 1956-57 and Alex (Boo) Ellis of Niagara in 1957-58. And talk about character development. "Rome wasn't built in a day," says Lane. "This Rome took two years."

At least. But the reconstruction period is not over. Not when Rome, make that Pitt, can look so terrible and so sublime in the same season. In December the team was blown out 93-73 at Brigham Young, after which the Panthers devoured Kansas, Arkansas and Wisconsin to win the Rainbow Classic. In January, Pitt fell apart at home against Georgetown, then won at Syracuse for the first time in 26 years.

Currently the Panthers have put together a 14-of-16-game winning surge that culminated in last week's road victories over Villanova, 58-57, and Providence, 87-81. If Pitt ever deserved to be taken seriously, it is at this very minute. The same team that has historically malingered on Big East foreign courts—7-27 since it joined the league in 1982, 2-10 last season—is now 5-0 in conference road games. Moreover, the Panthers had a 19-4 overall record and were tied with Syracuse for the Big East lead before Monday night's meeting with the Orangemen in the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. "Just about where I expected us to be," said Pitt coach Paul Evans.

On Saturday, Pitt mauled Providence on the backboards, 58-36. Lane and junior center Charles Smith had 17 rebounds apiece and combined for 45 points. In the process, Pitt slowed 16-5 Providence's own wondrous return to the limelight. The two teams may be creating a new Big East power base.

Paradoxically, Gore's 18 points and 12 boards camouflaged his own daffy day of turnovers, lane violations and spectacularly mindless midair moves that allowed the three-point-shooting, no-inside-game Friars to stay in it till the last few breaths. The fact is, if they were more solid and consistent, the Panthers would have beaten both 'Nova and Providence by at least 20 points.

It is instructive to note that this Panther team includes the same enigmas who ended their '85-86 Big East season by blatantly quitting against Georgetown (93-62) and then losing to the Hoyas again in the conference tournament when Gore misfired on a desperation 35-footer moments after a roll of pink toilet paper unfurled symbolically over the Panthers' heads.

At about the same time in a land far away, Evans was marching his Navy team to the NCAA quarterfinals, shunning the military's beloved man-to-man defense for a safer zone. "Too many deep thinkers," he would say of his boys in braid. Then Evans battened down his sailboat on Chesapeake Bay, packed up his new wife and some old ideas and headed off to bluer pastures where he could recruit "marginals," as he called them, and win a national championship.

And that's why things seem so peculiar now. Because, where should Evans emerge but in western Pee-Ay, where the contrast between the perm curl in his Up (not to mention his hair) and the Annual Malcontents at Pittsburgh would be more than just oil meets water. Who would pick up the pieces when Evans inevitably started panning the Panthers and they in turn started gobbling him up and spitting him out, as they had done to his predecessor, Roy Chipman?

Well, it began right away, before the first practice, in fact, when Gore decided to remove his gold earring before Evans could get a crack at it. Then, Lane roamed astray in a scrimmage, putting the ball behind his back on a drive, and Evans heaved him out of the gym. Or, as Lane put it, "ripped my face off." Said senior guard Curtis Aiken, the team captain, "We're still doing drills none of us have ever heard of."

Undeterred, Evans carried on. "You want to leave?" the coach would scream at practice. "When you start pukin' you can leave." When he really wanted to make a point, Evans hit his new charges where they lived, snarling: "Aren't you the guys who humiliated yourselves by losing to somebody I never heard of [Southwest Missouri State in the NIT]?"

The yammering about position switches and playing time that had undermined Chipman's authority ended when Evans named Gore and Lane the small and power forwards, respectively, Aiken the off-guard and Smith the center. "We knew it was his way or the doorway," Smith said. "He laid down the law right on top of us."

Actually, life hasn't been all that unbearable. Everybody is welcome in the coach's office. And Evans's view on haircuts remains enlightened despite his Naval Academy tour. Witness guard Mike Goodson's modified Grace Jones-with-racing-stripe as well as reserve Ricardo Alfredo (Tico) Cooper's trendy yarmulke-do: a shaved-circle, semilobotomy effect that Smith says makes Cooper look like an "ancient Chinese magistrate."

Ancient Chinese magistrate's proverb: When coach as master turns players into hamsters, result is new, improved Panthers. If Goodson, a sometime fashion model off-court, becomes more of a model play-maker on it, and freshman Rod Brookin can provide firepower off the bench, Pitt could emerge as a dark-horse contender for the Final Four.

"A legitimate candidate," says Providence coach Rick Pitino. "They don't get up in your face on defense because they want you to shoot outside so they can go get the rebound. And you better not miss because they will get it. If Pitt can stay out of foul trouble, they can make a run as far as they want."

Chipman's curse may have been that, like many coaches, he was better off without talent. In Pitt's first year in the Big East, the Panthers upset Syracuse. St. John's and Georgetown; in March 1985, when the current mainstays were babes, Pitt whipped national-champ-to-be Villanova by 23 points. Then last season: anarchy, chaos, 16 turnovers per conference game, a 15-14 record. In December. Chipman announced he was retiring at the end of the season. Pitt dropped 13 of its last 18 games anyway.

In the midst of such disaster, Aiken averaged 13.1 points per game with a .569 shooting average. "But who knew?" he says. "All the attention we got was negative." A prolific scorer out of Buffalo, Aiken was the prototypical big-city big-timer that Pittsburgh could attract. Gore, from Detroit, and Lane, from Akron, were equally sought-after prep stars. Smith, a Bridgeport, Conn., native, became the gem of the, uh, Three Rivers.

The rub was that these were Final Four-quality players who, under Chipman, had become four-flushers. He had turned Aiken into a feeder, then fiat out benched him. Similar confidence-destroying continued when Chipman moved Smith from forward to the unfamiliar center position and yo-yoed the moody Lane all over the block.

"We just had a severe lack of communication," says Smith. As if it was easy communicating with Lane who, in his street patois, says things like "I ain't into no arguing, but a coach's thoughts got to be ver-sa-tile" or with Cooper, an odd sort from Aruba who was named Ricardo after Ricky Ricardo (his sister, believe it or not, is named Lucinda) and who recently said he got a "great 10 hours sleep...I sacked out from midnight to eight." Ohhhh, Ricky. Maybe he was counting two hours of reruns.

"It wasn't disrespect, it was just so easy to take advantage," says Gore, whose nickname had been circulated as Me rather than De or his preferred moniker, the Sandman, thus "showing me up as more of a hot dog than I really am. When we're winning, nobody points out those things. I don't do anything intentionally crazy," he says.

Despite Evans's rather provincial list of ports of call—Geneseo State? St. Lawrence? Navy? Was this guy coaching basketball or delivering weapons parts for Ollie North?—he was a hot property when Pittsburgh signed him last spring, a fellow who school officials thought would be a straitlaced, rigid-arrow officer and gentleman of a basketball coach. Wrong. The mischief in his James Can look-alike visage should have given Evans away immediately.

He rolled in like a loose cannon. Not only did he rip Gore and Lane, he closed his locker room to the press, went after opposing coaches and referees ("they'll have to adjust to me") and recruited a dynamite freshman class for next season.

Oh, yes, and lord can he coach. His record at Annapolis was 119-60. Last season the Mids led the nation in field goal shooting and ranked in the top 20 in five other offensive categories, not to mention extreme spirit-rattling confidence. Evans knows how—and shows his young men how—to win.

Since acknowledging that his lack of big plays helped blow a home game to St. John's on Jan. 19, Smith has gotten it done down the stretch. His two blocks in the last minute saved the Villanova game; he rejected six Providence offerings on Saturday. And, his season-long willingness to mix it up has earned him more trips to the foul line than any other Big East player.

Smith is setting up increasingly on the high post to take advantage of his feathery jumpers and to allow Lane more room to scatter bodies down low. "Hey, I'm a finesse player, I don't gorilla nobody," Lane demurred last weekend.

Pitino concurs that Smith is a fearsome scorer but that Lane plain terrifies a team. Providence committed 36 fouls mostly trying to stop this prolific pair, and the twin beasts obliged by hitting a combined 23 of 29 free throws.

It is not heresy to point out that Smith and Lane have given their adopted city its best one-two punch since Billy Conn. And anyway, Pittsburgh doesn't really lose games. As has been said of another local chucker, the late Bobby Layne, the Panthers simply run out of time.

Not much time is left to run out of. "We don't take anything for granted anymore," says Lane. "I always thought you could come in and play well and get the attention of the pros, the All-America selectors and so on. But now I know 15 and 14 won't get it, Jack. You can't be just good. You got to win."

Thoughts like those should be ver-sa-tile enough for any coach—even if his name isn't Jack and he now earns a whole lot of it. And, if he makes sure the ball gets to Charles of the Pitts or Lane in the lane.



Lane, the nation's rebounding leader, hauled down 17 boards in the win over Providence.



Smith (32) grabbed 17, too, as Pitt muscled its way to a 58-36 rebound advantage.



Evans (left) tamed his band of free spirits, but Jerome (above) wasn't built in a day.



[See caption above.]



On the few occasions the Friars got close to the hoop, Smith was there to jam them.