Feb. 6, 2004
By Brian Litvack
Last Wednesday, St. John's strolled into the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh to face the No. 4 Panthers. The city kids played with the flair, tenacity and showmanship that characterize basketball on the streets of the Big Apple. In the second half, the high-flying dunks and nifty no-look passes almost made it seem as though the winning team was hot-dogging it. The sole problem for the Red Storm was that these talented and brash kids, who grew up playing hoops on the playgrounds of NYC, were all wearing Pittsburgh uniforms and helped the Panthers dominate the Johnnies 71-51.
Pittsburgh is quietly putting together its third straight spectacular season. The Panthers are 72-11 since the beginning of the 2001-2002 season. They are undefeated in their brand new arena, having disposed of the 39 straight opponents, and are primed to return to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year.
When a star such as Brandin Knight graduates, the Panthers just drive east on I-80, cross the George Washington Bridge and recruit some more NYC talent. Pittsburgh has as many players on its roster from New York City (four) as it does from the entire state of Pennsylvania. Point guard Carl Krauser (Bronx) and freshman Chris Taft are New York products who are major contributors and have helped the Panthers amass a handsome 21-1 record. Mark McCarroll and Dante Milligan, the other two city kids, are key reserves for the Panthers. Furthermore, Pittsburgh has signed three top recruits from NYC for next season.
Against St. John's, Krauser had nine points, nine assists and seven rebounds. A few of his passes landed in the hands of Taft and McCarroll. Together they combined for six jams, including a few of the jaw-dropping variety.
Meanwhile, St. John's is winless in the Big East and has been immersed in a storm of trouble. (Things got much worse after the Pitt game as six players from the team were involved in a late-night scandal that involved strip clubs, a hooker and false accusations of rape, and has already resulted in player expulsions and suspensions.)
Part of St. John's troubles can be attributed to their inability to snag homegrown talent. Mike Jarivs, who was fired earlier this season, recruited New York City kids with little success. Jarvis was viewed as arrogant and egotistical by influential high school and AAU coaches. St. John's believed that Taft wanted out of New York. Taft claims, "I really didn't like the coaching staff and I just didn't feel comfortable with them."
One team's misfortunate is another team's....
Pittsburgh took advantage of St. John's futility and put together the pieces to build a New York pipeline. Pitt assistant coach Barry Rohrssen is a New York guy who knows the politics of the game in the five boroughs. Rohrssen recruited Krauser and Taft as well as next year's trio. It didn't hurt that Rohrssen attended the same Bronx public high school as Taft (Xavieran) in the early '80s. McCarroll remarks that Rohrssen "does a real good job of recruiting New York. He played at the same high school as [Taft], so he knows how to talk to the players. Everybody likes that. I think that's why we come here." Rohrssen is also thankful that "the high school and AAU coaches put faith in our program."
After Pitt's drubbing of the Johnnies, Krauser was all New Yorker when he commented, "I wanted to show St. John's the little magic that they were missing." He also added. "I was real shocked because New York City guards and New York City players in general are like the toughest players out of all cities... I was definitely surprised to see those guys back down and not play a full 40-minute game."
To get a real taste of New York City basketball at the college level, all you have to do is full your car with a tank of gas and travel to Pittsburgh.
Pitt forward Chris Taft, a native of New York, dunks over St. John's Lamont Hamilton.