Panthers lean on Levon

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:44 AM ET

BUFFALO -- The story goes like this: When 9/11 happened, University of Pittsburgh Panthers coach Jamie Dixon was scheduled to go to New York on a recruiting trip for the men's basketball team.

But when the airports all were shut down, the only tournaments that Dixon could get to by car were one in Buffalo, then a Nike tournament for high school players in Toronto.

Denham Brown was one of the Toronto kids he wanted to take a look at. But in the end it wasn't Brown who caught Dixon's eye. Instead, it was a lanky, 6-foot-10 power forward from Vancouver, Levon Kendall, who really stood out.

"We lost out on the other kids, but I really liked (Levon)," Dixon said. "I watched him in three games. He was well coached in terms of his defensive fundamentals. His passing was there. I saw him shoot the ball well. But I liked the way he interacted with players, different players from different parts of the country. That sold me on him."

Fast forward to this past Saturday in Buffalo, far beyond the growing pains, far beyond those early years of being nailed to the bench at Pitt, those early frustrations for Kendall in a Pitt uniform.

He and 7-foot centre Aaron Gray are Pitt's key players now, propelling the Panthers to No. 2 status in the latest Division I Associated Press poll.

"They did a good job of clogging the lane," Buffalo point guard Eric Moore said after the game. He wasn't kidding. With Kendall and Gray parked in the paint, knees bent, arms stretched straight out, they forced the Bulls out to the perimeter, where in the end the Bulls relied too much on outside shots. Dixon said Kendall is the team's MVP. His status has Canada's senior men's national team coach Leo Rautins salivating as well.

A kid who put up 40 points and 12 rebounds for Canada against a junior national U.S. team in a tournament in Argentina in 2005, dumbfounding NBA scouts, has been contributing in other ways for Pitt. In Saturday's game, in front of 6,350 frenzied Bulls fans -- the third largest crowd in Alumni Arena history -- Kendall had just six points, but it was the intangibles that one took notice of, especially in the face of a charged-up Bulls team that came within three points of pulling off a massive upset.

Gray had 19 points, but it was Kendall's six rebounds, his four assists, one turnover -- and the key points during a close game where he made those contributions -- that get noticed by basketball people.

"My role in this offence is a lot different here," Kendall said. "I do the little things, play defence, set screens, be a leader, the stuff that doesn't show up in the boxscores. I'm not satisfied with 6.0 points per game (his average), but that's not something I'm going to force."

Next up for Kendall is finishing up on a high note with Pitt, then the NBA draft.

"When the post-season comes and he does individual workouts with NBA teams, I'll be shocked if he doesn't climb up (the draft board)," Rautins said. "Teams that have him doing one-on-ones or in a group of four or five, they'll see what he is capable of doing in a different environment. They'll be pleasantly surprised."


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