Twenty-three years ago, a flock of college coaches coveted the skills of Bennett guard Curtis Aiken, one of the most electrifying players Western New York high school basketball has produced.
None of Aiken's moves on the floor, nevertheless, left a more defining imprint that the one he made from high school to college, a last-minute decision to play basketball at Pittsburgh. After Aiken joined the Panthers it started a recruiting pipeline that was strengthened once current coach Jamie Dixon became an assistant at Pitt in 1999.
"When we do our recruiting, we like to go about four hours away," said Dixon, who brings his No. 2-ranked team to Alumni Arena Saturday to face the University at Buffalo. "It just makes sense. We're going to
be up here at all times, every time there's a guy."
Over the years, Dixon has made a habit of recruiting homegrown talent like Turner-Carroll's Julius Page, Quadir Habeeb and Ed Turner, Traditional's Daryl Jacobs and Lazar Hayward, East Aurora's Dave Mallon and Niagara Falls' Paul Harris and Tyrell Lynch.
Page, who scored more than 1,500 points, and Turner both signed with the Panthers while Jacobs gave a verbal commitment but never attended the school. Turner later transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette. Dixon's link to Western New York goes back even further. As an assistant at Hawaii in 1992, Dixon recruited former Bennett guard Trevor Ruffin out of Arizona Western Junior College and Lockport's Tony Maroney from Marshalltown (Iowa) Community College.
"I called Trevor up one day and asked, 'Hey, do you know about this kid named Julius Page from Buffalo?' " Dixon said. "He said, 'Yeah, I just played with him yesterday.' "
But it all started in 1983 with Aiken, one of America's most sought-after guards, who averaged 41 points as a high school senior.
"There were a lot of talented players before me but for whatever reason, the nation really wasn't recruiting players out of Buffalo," said Aiken, co-founder and CEO of eSGS, a Pittsburgh-based e-commerce company. "I hit the scene my senior year and got some national recognition from the standpoint of making the Parade All-American team and the McDonald's team. Being one of the top guards in the country, recruiters started looking at Buffalo."
The pipeline almost didn't happen.
Aiken was so sure he was attending Kansas that he called a news conference to announce a verbal commitment. But after longtime Kansas coach Tom Owens was replaced by Larry Brown, Aiken was advised to re-open his recruitment. Aiken's grandmother raised him and was getting up in age so he wanted to stay close to home.
Aiken considered Syracuse but the Orangemen had already signed point guard Dwayne "Pearl" Washington. The best option was Pitt.
"[Washington] and I had a strong rivalry and I wanted it to continue," said Aiken, who scored 1,200 points and handed out 378 assists. "Pitt was the best fit for me because I thought I could have the biggest impact and it turned out to be a good situation for me."
Aiken, who is a friend and neighbor of Dixon's, said Dixon likes local players because of their toughness and their head-in-your-chest defense.
"He respects the players that come out of Buffalo because they're not only talented, but they're never going to back down," Aiken said. "They'll get up in your face, play 'D' 94 feet. That's the kind of kids he tries to recruit and Buffalo produces those kinds of kids. That's why he wanted Paul Harris in the worst way."
Harris, arguably the area's best prospect since Christian Laettner, is the loss that really hurt. He seemed destined for Syracuse almost from the start, but that didn't stop Dixon from relentlessly pursuing Harris.
"He was really disappointed because he didn't come to Pitt but he's going to be successful no matter what," Aiken said. "Pitt's No. 2 in the country, but I believe they would be No. 1 in the country if Paul Harris were here."
The last time Pitt was ranked this high was in December 2002, when Page was a junior. If the Panthers continue on this path a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament will follow and perhaps a trip to Buffalo for the first and second rounds.
"That wouldn't bother me much," Dixon said. "I like Buffalo a lot."
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Three different television outlets will broadcast Saturday's game. WNGS (Ch. 67 in Springville/Buffalo), Fox Sports Pittsburgh and Sports Net New York will show the game live at 4 p.m. The game will also be available on a subscription basis through ESPN's Full Court package. . . . As of late Thursday afternoon, less than 100 tickets were available.