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October 16, 2008Levance Fields doesn't have to think for long about the biggest disappointment in his college playing career so far.
Despite personal success, despite team regular-season success, despite winning the Big East tournament last year, Pittsburgh has not been past the Sweet 16 during the Bronx, N.Y., native's three years on campus.
"For whatever reason we haven't done well in the NCAA tournament," Fields told Rivals.com. "It hurts, it makes me angry, whatever words you want to use."
Last year may have been the worst feeling of all. After snatching the Big East's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the Panthers became a trendy pick to reach the Final Four. They appeared to be clicking with Fields back in the lineup after he missed 12 midseason games with a fractured left foot.
He had returned sooner than expected and struggled for a few games, and so did the team. But all of that changed in the Big East tournament. Pitt beat Cincinnati in the opener then proceeded to knock off the murderers' row of Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown. Fields averaged 36 minutes per game and had 22 assists to just four turnovers. Each game the Panthers seemed to get better.
But the run ended almost as quickly as it had begun. After a first-round romp over Oral Roberts, Pittsburgh was waylaid by Michigan State, 65-54.
"It was hard to take," Fields said. "We have to find a way to win in games like that."
The 2008-09 Panthers appear ready to win plenty. They return a great floor general in Fields, an All-Big East first-team selection in forward Sam Young and the Big East co-Rookie of the Year in center DeJuan Blair. If coach Jamie Dixon can find enough pieces to fill in around the talented trio, the Sweet 16 should be the floor, not the ceiling.
Fields had more surgery on his foot in August. He has not been cleared to participate fully as practice begins Friday, but the Panthers believe he will be ready to go by the time the season tips off against Fairleigh Dickinson on Nov. 14 at the Petersen Events Center.
"I'm coming along fine," Fields said. "Everything is where it needs to be. I'm not worried about any lingering problems. I have all the confidence in the world in the Pittsburgh doctors."
Fields said he is allowed to shoot and jog at the moment. He said there's not a set timetable for when he'll be given the OK to go full speed.
The Panthers need him at full speed. They were 8-4 without him; they were 19-4 in the games in which Fields started. At his best he can score by getting in the lane or spotting up, and he can set up teammates as well. He averaged 11.9 points per game last season, and his assist average (5.3) would have ranked third in the Big East, but he didn't meet the requirement of playing in 75 percent of Pitt's games.
One weakness for the Panthers would appear to be perimeter shooting. Gone are the top rainmakers, Ronald Ramon (67 3-pointers) and Keith Benjamin (51).
"As of right now we have lost that with Ron and Keith graduating," Fields said. "But I'll be shooting the ball better this year. I think I'm better than I showed last year (28 of 101 from 3-point range). Sam can step out and hit, too.
"I'm not too worried about it. If teams decide they can play off us we'll be fine."
And what of the new 3-point distance of 20 feet, 9 inches?
"Nah, I'm not thinking about the line back a foot at all," Fields said.
No, apparently the only foot of concern in Pittsburgh is the one at the end of Fields' left leg.
Only one Pittsburgh guard has ever been named first-team All-Big East. Who was it?
NEAR SWEEP FOR SOONERS
A week after Oklahoma was picked as the favorite in the Big 12 by the league's coaches the league revealed its preseason all-conference teams, headed by the selection of Sooners forward Blake Griffin as the preseason player of the year.
It's a difficult choice with which to argue. The big man is one of only two returning players who was on the All-Big 12 first team last year after averaging 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds.
The choice for preseason freshman of the year was Sooners guard Willie Warren. He's a Rivals.com five-star prospect ranked No. 10 overall in the 2008 class and No. 4 among point guards. He should start at OU from the get-go and make Griffin that much more dangerous.
Baylor's Curtis Jerrells is the other returning player who was on the All-Big 12 team last year and is a preseason selection this year. Rounding out the team with Griffin and Jerrells are Kansas guard Sherron Collins, Texas guard A.J. Abrams and Texas forward Damion James.
? Sun Belt coaches tabbed Middle Tennessee as the favorite in the East and went with Arkansas-Little Rock in the West. Blue Raiders junior forward Desmond Yates was the pick as preseason player of the year. He averaged 16.0 points and 4.4 rebounds last season.
? The Sun Belt has three new coaches, two with Big Six head-coaching experience. Mike Jarvis takes over at Florida Atlantic after stints at Boston University, George Washington and St. John's. John Brady is the new man at Arkansas State after being fired at LSU midway through last season. The other new coach in the Sun Belt has been in the league before. Ken McDonald landed his first head-coaching job at Western Kentucky, where he served as an assistant from 1998-2003 under Dennis Felton. He comes back to Bowling Green, Ky., after serving as an assistant to Rick Barnes at Texas.
? It's nice to see the coaches and the media getting along so well. In the WAC, both groups picked Nevada as the favorite, followed by Utah State and New Mexico State. The coaches' choice for preseason player of the year was guard Armon Johnson (11.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.4 apg) of Nevada, while the media went with forward Gary Wilkinson of Utah State (13.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg). Both of those players were preseason all-conference picks, along with New Mexico State's Jonathan Gibson, Louisiana Tech's Kyle Gibson and San Jose State's C.J. Webster. The coaches and media agreed on all five players. They also agree that Nevada freshman Luke Babbitt will have an immediate impact. The coaches voted him to the second team, and the media picked him as newcomer of the year. The coaches didn't vote on a newcomer or freshman.
Brandin Knight was a first-team selection in 2001-02. He also won the league's Most Improved Player award that year. He is entering his first season as an assistant coach on Jamie Dixon's staff after working his way up from video coordinator two seasons ago and director of basketball operations last season.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.