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March 18, 2008
Less than three weeks after Cook tore an ACL and Fields broke a bone in his foot, the Panthers knocked off then-No. 8 Georgetown 69-60 on Jan. 14. The Panthers led the entire second half. But Pitt senior guard Keith Benjamin knew the performance was an aberration.
Cook, averaging 10.4 points a game at the time of his injury, was a major part of the team but still replaceable. Benjamin had been a part of the rotation for three seasons, and promising freshman Gilbert Brown had a similar game to that of Cook.
But Fields, the team's only true point guard, was an entirely different story.
"To be honest, we were fighting the fact that we missed Levance so much," Benjamin said. "Playing without him, I think we knew we would run into some problems."
Benjamin was right.
The Panthers dropped three of their next five, including a shocking 77-64 loss to Rutgers at home ? only the Panthers' eighth loss in 100 games at the Peterson Events Center. By the end of that stretch, the Panthers had gone from Final Four contender to off the national radar.
Now, though, they're back on the radar ? and back among the national-title contenders ? after Fields led them to the Big East Tournament title over the weekend. That performance helped garner them a No. 4 seed in the South Regional in the NCAA Tournament, and Pitt opens play Thursday in Denver against 13th-seeded Oral Roberts.
When Fields finally returned Feb. 15 after a 12-game absence, things actually got worse. In his first two games back, the Panthers lost to Marquette and Notre Dame by a combined 40 points. But Pitt coach Jamie Dixon wasn't concerned.
"A lot of people thought it was going to be easy to come back and be ready to go right away," Dixon said. "Even Levance probably thought it would be easier than it was.
"Usually guys are out for the season when they're out that long. I really thought it would take two weeks for him to get into it, us getting used to him, and then him just getting through it and getting knocked down a few times. Then finding out his foot was all right, the conditioning, and all of the things that came with it. It's really gone as we anticipated."
Once Fields had time to get completely healthy and back into shape, Pitt made sure the Big East tourney didn't go as most anticipated. The seventh-seeded Panthers became just the second league team to win four games in four days on their way to the tourney title at Madison Square Garden.
Fields racked up 22 assists and just four turnovers in the tourney, a 5.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Fields delivered a six-assist, one-turnover performance in the Panthers' 74-65 win over Georgetown in Saturday night's title game.
The victory was especially meaningful for Fields, one of five Pitt players from the New York area. He played his high school ball in Brooklyn.
"We finally got over that hump," Fields said with a broad grin. "I went through some tough times, but it's so exciting to finally be able to have this trophy and celebrate."
Pitt's resurgence wouldn't have been possible without his return.
"Levance is a natural-born leader, and the main thing is that he is a point guard," Benjamin said. "Everything is so much easier with him on the court. He leads us to victory."
Power forward Sam Young also benefited from Fields' return. Young scored 80 points ? one off the tournament record ? and was voted the winner of the Dave Gavitt Trophy, which goes to the tournament's most outstanding player.
"I feel like right now we are playing our best basketball," Young said. "I feel like a lot of guys know what role they need to take on for us to be a great team."
Pitt's senior class now has a school-record 100 wins to go along with that Big East Tournament title. The Panthers also have proved themselves as one of the nation's top programs, posting a .801 winning percentage (166-41) over the past seven seasons; only four programs are better (Memphis, Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga).
But Dixon says his team remains hungry for more.
"Villanova's (1985 national) championship is remembered forever," Dixon said. "That's not forgotten. We have the best record in the Big East over the last seven years and one of the top-five records in the nation, but at the same time, the national championship is our ultimate goal."
Thanks to Fields, it's a realistic goal again.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.