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November 29, 2007

Young may have to live up to promise

PITTSBURGH Pittsburgh forward Sam Young is a man of his word.

He delivered on a preseason promise to perform a back flip if his Friendly High team won the Maryland state title his senior year. Now he's ready to repeat that stunt on the floor in March if his team holds up its end of the bargain.

"I plan on doing one after we get past the Sweet 16 this year," Young said.

If Young keeps playing this well, he may have to start brushing up on his gymnastics skills. The Panthers haven't advanced beyond the Sweet 16 since 1974, but they've won their first six games this season thanks in part to Young's fast start.

Young hasn't shown off any of the moves that made him an expert gymnast as a child, but he has displayed enough versatility to become the face of Pittsburgh's new fast-paced approach.

Young, a 6-foot-6 junior forward, has averaged 18.2 points and 8.5 rebounds to lead Pitt in both categories while helping the Panthers (6-0) win each of their games by double-digit margins.

Pittsburgh's undefeated record shouldn't come as much of a shock. The Panthers haven't faced a team from one of the big six conferences or anyone who played in the NCAA Tournament or NIT last year.

The surprise is how they're winning.

Pitt spent the past few seasons playing a half-court style that capitalized on 7-footer Aaron Gray's post presence. Gray's departure has left the Panthers relying on a smaller and quicker lineup that isn't afraid to run up and down the floor. The Panthers have averaged 10.7 steals per game thus far after recording 10 steals in a game just once last season.

Perhaps no player has benefited from this change more than Young, who has utilized his athleticism to rank second on the team with 12 steals from his power forward position. But his numbers tell only half the story. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon pointed out that Young's knowledge of the game also has helped make his teammates better, particularly on defense.

"It's amazing to see what he's doing," Dixon said. "He's almost directing traffic defensively. It's great to see. It's fun to see. He just knows everything we're trying to do."

The change in Young's game is no accident. He always has been a man of many talents off the floor: He participated in gymnastics and football in high school, and he took piano classes in high school and college until he learned how to play with reasonable proficiency.

Young now has made himself equally well-rounded on the court. He has worked on his weaknesses and made himself a more effective 3-point shooter. He learned to do a better job of keeping his head up while dribbling. He improved his passing. He made his left-handed layups more reliable.

By the time the season began, Young had improved himself to the point that he didn't bother setting specific goals because he was afraid of selling himself short.

"I don't try to put a limit on it," Young said. "If I say I want to go out and score 25, that's putting a limit on it. If I can go out and do better, I want to do better. If I go out and say I want to score 25 and they allow me to score 30, I want to score 30."

Young hasn't reached the 30-point mark, but he has developed into a stat-sheet stuffer who can do a little bit of everything. The guy once known primarily for dunks and rebounds now seems on the verge of maturing into one of the Big East's most complete players.

Pittsburgh has faced a weak non-conference schedule, but junior forward Sam Young's performance still indicates he's on the verge of a breakout season. Young has dwarfed his previous career averages in almost every statistical category.
Scoring 7.518.2
Shooting percentage.487.662
3-point percentage.270.571
Free-throw percentage.648.714
*-- Career totals heading into the 2007-08 season, which don't reflect what he has done this season.
After going 17-of-63 from 3-point range his first two seasons, he is 8-of-14 from beyond the arc this season. Young is shooting 66.2 percent from the floor overall after making just 45.8 percent of his attempts last season. He also has more than doubled his previous career averages in points and rebounds.

It remains to be seen whether Young can keep up this pace when Pitt enters Big East play, but his teammates like the way he has expanded his game.

"It makes such a difference for him," senior guard Keith Benjamin said. "Sam has always been a great player and a great athlete. Now he's well-rounded himself into a pro, which I think he will be in the future."

The Panthers need a breakthrough season from Young to have any realistic hope of continuing this program's recent history of success. Pittsburgh's .798 winning percentage since the 2000-2001 season ranks fifth in the nation. The Panthers' four trips to the Sweet 16 over the past six years rank second only to Duke.

Most of those Pitt teams, though, featured quite a bit more size than this one. The departures of Gray, Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves left Pittsburgh without three former starters who accounted for 40 percent of the Panthers' rebounds last season. Pittsburgh's current starting lineup doesn't feature anyone taller than 6-7 freshman DeJuan Blair, which puts Young at a height disadvantage against the person guarding him virtually every night.

The height problem hasn't bothered the Panthers so far. Nor has it hindered Young, who compensates for his lack of size with a surplus of athleticism that has been apparent since his childhood.

"When I was small, I was a very good athlete as far as gymnastics is concerned," Young said. "Some people thought I could even go to the Olympics, but I just started playing football and that was my main focus."

Of course, his size probably would have precluded any Olympic dreams even if he hadn't shifted his attention first to football and later to basketball. You don't see too many 6-6 guys working the pommel horse.

But each time he makes a dunk as spectacular as his one-handed jam during a 92-45 rout of Buffalo last week, Young proves he still has plenty of flexibility. No wonder Young already is looking forward to showing fans his back-flipping talents if the Panthers finally advance beyond the Sweet 16 next March.

"This year I'm going to try to be more of a crowd-pleaser," he said.

So far, so good.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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