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Young and gifted

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DENVER – The piano was right there in the lobby, unoccupied, and Sam Young couldn't resist.

He and the rest of the Pittsburgh Panthers were returning to their Denver hotel after Thursday's first-round NCAA rout of Oral Roberts. Young sat down. Some of his teammates gathered around. He banged out a few of his favorite tunes.

"Some Stevie Wonder, some Luther Vandross," he said.

Young does it mostly for fun, but he can read music. He can listen to something on the radio and figure out how to play it within a few minutes. He has a natural talent for it, as he does for varied interests such as gymnastics and poetry. He's one of those people who can dabble in just about anything and excel at it with little effort.

Give him a guitar. Show him a broken sink. Put him in a cockpit. Young will figure it out.

"He can do anything," teammate DeJuan Blair said.

But his obsession is basketball. And if there's one reason why Pittsburgh is here, poised to battle Michigan State on Saturday for a Sweet 16 spot, after a regular season plagued by injuries and inconsistency, it is Young.

The 6-6, 215-pound junior forward, long lauded by coach Jamie Dixon for being the team's hardest-working player, now is its best. He does not get as much publicity as jitterbug catalyst Levance Fields or even Blair, the 6-7, 265-pound house of a freshman center.

What he does is lead the team in points (18.1), minutes (32.0) and three-point accuracy (39.1 percent), after discouraging showings in all three categories as a sophomore. What he did is earn Big East Most Improved Player, first-team all-Big East honors and Big East Tournament MVP, all improbable expectations in November.

What he still may do is open to speculation. Those who know him will not put a ceiling on it.

"He does some unbelievable stuff," Blair said. "I can't believe some of it. He's an NBA prospect, to me, right now."

This is a guy who had serious aspirations as a 10-year-old of becoming an Olympic gymnast. Back then, he would do backflips off Dumpsters at his elementary school, a 15-foot drop as he recalls. He still can do the rings, roundoffs, back handsprings and other assorted tricks.

"Gymnastics, I think that's one of the reasons I'm athletic as I am," said Young, whose vertical leap approaches 40 inches. "I still do it sometimes, stay up to par. I think it helps me."

That may not thrill the Pitt training staff. They worked hard over the summer on Young's knees, which were plagued by tendinitis a year ago. That's the primary reason he had such an ineffective sophomore season.

It was a bad scene altogether for Young. He was coming off the bench and not happy about it, even though his knees were creaky and his defensive awareness was suspect at times.

When he played, he struggled. He averaged 7.7 points a game, making just 13 of 42 from three-point range (31 percent) and just 59.7 percent of his free throws. Off the court, he brooded. A quiet person by nature, he eventually cut off the media completely.

"For one thing, I didn't want to say something I regretted," Young said. "I don't know, it was just frustrating. It felt like I worked so hard to earn a (starting) spot, and it wasn't given to me. It was frustrating, and then my knees got worse. You work so hard for something, and then you get a couple big letdowns."

He had a heart-to-heart with Dixon after the season, expressed his angst and talked about what he needed to do to carve out a bigger role. It was pretty simple: Get healthy. Young's gym-rat tendencies no doubt contributed to his aching knees.

He found encouragement at home, in Mitchellville, Md. His younger brother, Michael Spriggs, who is legally blind, acts as a motivating force for Young – and not just on the piano, where Spriggs is the superior player.

"He just told me to keep at it," Young said of Spriggs, a high school wrestler who will be off to college in the fall. "He's a big inspiration for me, definitely, because he always reminds me of how blessed I am, how fortunate I am. I always think about, what would he do if he had the same opportunities I have?"

Young wrote a poem in the offseason, and he reads it to himself before every game. It includes this passage: "I am a winner, I can't lose to any man, for when they come into contact with me, they have reached my world."

This was the outgoing message on Young's phone: "I'm not big enough to play the four and not skilled enough to play the three. Everything you hear right now, they said that stuff about me."

In other words, Sam Young was pretty ticked off.

Add that motivation to his natural abilities and two healthy knees, and you get a season like this. It's a smash hit, and Sam may be playing it for a couple more weeks.

Joe Rexrode covers Michigan State for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal.

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