BOSTON — Like its pizza, hot dogs and cheesecake, New York City's point guards are an acquired taste.
"Maybe there's something in the water," said Xavier freshman Terrell Holloway, who grew up in Hempstead, N.Y., about 10 minutes from St. John's University. "With New York and point guards, there's a lot of history."
Gifted and beloved, yet often doomed by hype, they're basketball's tortured artists. For all the examples of brilliance — think Tiny Archibald and Mark Jackson — there's an equal number of phenoms — Omar Cook and Sebastian Telfair come to mind — who just aren't as good as we're led to believe.
So where does New Yorker Levance Fields belong? The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Pittsburgh senior, who's built more like Kevin Faulk than Kevin Johnson, is unique, at least by today's standards. He may lack the explosiveness of his NYC brethren Stephon Marbury and Kenny Anderson. He may not be a pure shooter like Chris Mullin, a fellow Xaverian High School of Brooklyn graduate. Still, the playmaker hasn't been hindered by his perceived deficiencies.
"People brush him off because he doesn't pass the eye test," Pitt assistant coach Tom Herrion said from his team's locker room at TD Banknorth Garden yesterday. "His appearance isn't the fittest, but yet he's the toughest. He's a big shot taker, a big shot maker. He's a winner. Hopefully he can keep that going in the next couple weeks."
So where does Fields belong? At this point, he deserves to be mentioned among the Big Apple's success stories. The 21-year-old, a three-time finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given each year to the nation's best point guard, has spent his four seasons at Pitt maximizing his talent.
"You can make the argument that he does as good a job playing that position as anyone out there," said Xavier coach Sean Miller, himself a former all-star point guard at Pitt.
If you're an unaffiliated basketball junkie searching for someone to root for during tonight's NCAA East regional matchup (7:27 p.m., CBS) between No. 1 Pitt (30-4) and No. 4 Xavier (27-7), look no further than Fields. Sure, 6-7, 265-pound DeJuan Blair is the star (he looks like he could be the long lost son of former Michigan star Robert "Tractor" Traylor), but Fields runs the show.
"He's the leader out there," said Holloway, a 6-foot guard averaging 5.7 points per game for the Musketeers. "If you watch Pittsburgh, and you take him off the team, you can see that they'd be a lot different."
After missing 12 games due to a broken foot in 2007-08, Fields hasn't missed a contest this winter and leads the team in minutes (32.2 per game). He's averaging 10.9 points and 7.6 assists per game and is tops in the ultra competitive Big East with an assist/turnover ratio of 3.79 (258/68).
"He has bravado," Herrion said of Fields, who surpassed the program's single-season assist record (251) Brandin Knight set in 2001-02. "And it permeates to his teammates. He's a leader. He's the heartbeat of our ballclub. We go as he goes."
His nickname in the team bios, "The General", seems to fit. Like Holloway, Fields spent his formative years hearing about Telfair's exploits at Coney Island's Lincoln High. Fields' hoop philosophy, he said, was heavily influenced by his hometown.
"We just always make sure we're the ultimate competitors," he said in a heavy Brooklyn accent. "It's just New York. I can't explain it. It's something that comes with (living there)."
Herrion talks about big shots. Fields hit several against Oklahoma State last weekend. One, a trey at the halftime buzzer, tied the game at 49. Another, a layup at 2:11 in the second half, gave the Panthers a 76-74 lead. A third, a long-range three, put Pitt ahead by 79-74. The Panthers ended up winning 84-76.
"The really good (point guards) from New York, they have their swagger," Herrion said. "They're fearless. They're not afraid to put themselves in position where the game is on the line. They've been in those situations before."
As far as the future goes, Herrion thinks Fields is destined for pro ball.
"It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he makes the (NBA)," said Herrion, a Merrimack College graduate. "What he understands is that he has to get the right guys shots."
The right guys, as in Blair (15.8 ppg) — who has an 86-inch wingspan — and Sam Young (18.9 ppg), are reaping the benefits. "He's not a hungry scorer at all," Herrion said of Fields. "He knows how to set people up."
Herrion called his point guard's work "underappreciated" at the national level. Holloway disagrees.
"I think people see what I see," he said.
Like yesterday, when Fields, sporting his trademark braids, launched a jumper from halfcourt at the end of Pitt's open practice. When the ball fell cleanly through the net, his teammates mobbed him. The Garden crowd, although sparse, seemed impressed.
"He knows," Holloway said, "that it's a show out there."
Duke junior Jon Scheyer didn't begin the year at point guard. But coach Mike Krzyzewski's experiment has paid off. The 6-foot-5 Scheyer has been just what the Blue Devils have needed of late.
Last week, he made perhaps the best play of the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend. With his team on defense, clinging to a slim lead over Texas, he sprinted toward the sideline to save a loose ball. But instead of risking accidentally giving the Longhorns an extra shot, he launched a one-handed, behind-the-back pass. Duke's Elliot Williams got fouled fighting to grab the high-bouncing ball.
It's the kind of move Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds has been watching Scheyer make for years.
"That's just a smart basketball play," Reynolds said. "In the heat of the moment, you revert back to your habits. He's always been tough mentally."
The No. 3 Wildcats (28-7) will take on No. 2 Duke (30-6) in today's late game (9:57 p.m.) at the Garden.