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Inside the Pittsburgh-Xavier matchup

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / March 26, 2009
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Pittsburgh

The Panthers have the only radio color man here who was a National League MVP, who has two World Series rings, and who was an All-American basketball player at one of the other competing schools. That would be 78-year-old Dick Groat, who, long before he helped win the 1960 World Series for the Pirates - yup, young'uns, the Pirates were once really good - and the 1964 World Series for the Cardinals, was a sensational shooting guard for the Duke Blue Devils, averaging 25.2 points a game as a junior and 26 in his senior year of 1951-52. He remains the second-leading per-game scorer in Duke history, trailing only Art Heyman. It was not that uncommon for superb multi-sport athletes to play two professional sports at a time, and so Groat averaged 11.9 points per game as a rookie with the NBA's Fort Wayne Pistons in 1952-53 before deciding to stick with baseball. That turned out to be a pretty good decision, as he had a 14-year big league career as a shortstop that included the two aforementioned championships, plus the MVP, as well as eight All-Star appearances.

Pitt has had some excellent players, but its most beloved performer for old-timers would have to be Don Hennon, a 5-foot-8-inch guard who was a first-team All-American in 1958. Hennon averaged 21, 26, and 25 points per game in a three-year career and remains the all-time Pitt per-game scorer. He had played for his father, L. Butler Hennon, at Wampum (Pa.) High. The elder Hennon was the principal of the school, and a basketball radical who believed in elaborate training drills involving chairs, ladders, blindfolds, etc. Among Hennon's other players was Richie (later Dick) Allen, of baseball fame.

Prior to Ben Howland taking over the team in 1999-2000, the Panthers had won 20 games five times in its hoop history, the last time being a 21-12 season in 1990-91. Pitt now has won 24 or more seven times in the last eight years. The 1960s were a particularly rough decade. From 1964-65 through 1968-69, Pitt went 7-16, 5-17, 6-19, 7-15, and 4-20, the first four of these disastrous seasons under Robert Timmons and the last one under Buzz Ridl.

Pitt actually got to the national semifinals in 1941. The Panthers had a 12-5 record but were somehow invited to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to eventual champion Wisconsin, 36-30. Those were different times.

Xavier coach Sean Miller is a 1992 Pitt grad who is second on the all-time Pitt assists list with 744.

Pitt's gleaming Petersen Events Center (12,508) has not had an official empty seat since opening in 1992.

Xavier

Xavier is the standard by which all so-called - sorry, guys, but here it comes - "mid-majors" should be judged. There's nothing "mid-anything" about a school that is in its 19th NCAA Tournament since 1982-83, in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years, and looking for its third Elite Eight appearance in five years. During this 26-year run, the Musketeers have won 20 or more games 22 times and 30 once. And they just seem to keep getting better. "I know this," says coach Sean Miller, "we're able to talk to people and be in places that four of five years ago were untouchable for us. A lot has to do with the NCAA Tournament. 'Can you get there? Can you advance?' And once those two things are established and people investigate out program further, and look at the Cintas Center and the academic environment we have, it's really become a lot easier."

Xavier has B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson. So how did coach Sean Miller miss out on Connecticut's A.J. Price? "I don't know," he says. "That would have been a good addition."

Xavier is a finishing school for NBA forwards. In the last 20 seasons, the Musketeers have sent Tyrone Hill ('90), Derek Strong ('90), Aaron Williams ('93), Brian Grant ('94), James Posey ('99), and David West ('03) to the NBA.

How's this for impressive coaching continuity? The last five Xavier coaches have been Bob Staak, Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, and Miller. Not a clunker among 'em.

Do yourself a favor and scrounge up a ticket to a Xavier-Cincinnati game before you die. "It's probably as brutal a game as there is in college basketball," Miller maintains. "Two schools 8 miles apart in different conferences and everyone in town chooses up sides. Both schools have very good traditions. It may be nonconference, but it counts. It's a very meaningful game, and it is always played at a high level."

The Xavier PR people are always very inventive when it comes to pushing their players. I still have my Romain Sato nesting doll.
Bob Ryan

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