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Reserve provides lift for men's hoops team

By ROD GIPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


TAMPA -- Elijah Piazza is a criminology major, so his analysis of his role on the University of Tampa basketball team is natural.

Piazza is the first or second man off the bench for coach Richard Schmidt, so Piazza likens his situation to cops and robbers.

"If the first team is the cops," Piazza said, "then I'm with the FBI. When the cops need a little help, they call the FBI."

And so far this season, when the Spartans have needed his help, Piazza has delivered. A 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward, Piazza's presence has helped the Spartans' depth, created new lineups and added scoring punch.

"Last year, this team was not as deep," Piazza said. "And when they got in trouble, they usually had to move Gecarri (Freeman) around. Now with myself and James (Mereus) coming in, it seems like this team is never tired."

At least Piazza hasn't been.

Since coming to UT this season after two years at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Piazza has become a valuable cog in the Spartans' rotation. Along with Mereus and Peter Howard, Piazza has been a key reserve and a new option for Schmidt.

In nine games, Piazza has averaged 20 minutes per game, which is more than two starters. He also has chipped in 10.6 points and five rebounds per game.

"He's been a big benefit to us," Schmidt said. "He can do a lot. He's helped us with our bench. He's got good size, good hands, can pass, and if you don't guard him, he can score."

Several of UT's opponents have found that out as Piazza has scored in double-figures six times in nine games, including 18 points in 25 minutes in his first game as a Spartan.

So with a high amount of first-year playing time and a double-figure scoring average, it's only natural Piazza would want a bigger piece of the spotlight, right?

Not so.

"As far as starting, there are about seven or eight of us with about the same amount of minutes," Piazza said. "So there is no point in changing that. Things are working well right now, and I'm very content with my role."

A player Schmidt was familiar with when he was a senior at Bayshore Christian, Piazza benefited from two years at the junior college level. Division II schools Eckerd, Alabama-Huntsville and St. Andrews, among others, came calling, but Piazza opted for UT.

"I had some options about where I wanted to go," he said. "But most of those other schools were comparing themselves to UT. I was familiar with the school and decided to go somewhere I could play and where the team could win."

UT is off to a 9-0 start, is ranked ninth in the country in Division II and is the top-ranked team in the South Region, even ahead of 6-0 Florida Southern, which remains the top team in the national poll. Piazza is pleased with his UT career so far but realizes he and the team have a long road ahead.

"Playing at this level is a real challenge. That's the big difference between JUCO and D-II," he said. "And looking at this team, we know it is early. But the talk may not be about winning a regional but winning the whole thing.

"This team is just beginning to reach their potential, and once they do, they might not be able to be beat. I really believe that."

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