CBKB: Surprise! Rebuilding Pitt among Big East elite
By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — Jamie Dixon is one stubborn man.
Pitt’s basketball coach lost four starters from his 31-5 team that was a basket away from making the Final Four last season. Among those leaving were two of the best players in school history, NBA draft picks DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. Yet Dixon, a former Hawaii assistant, insisted his Panthers could win even after they were picked to finish ninth in the brutal Big East.
For nearly a month, there was little to suggest Dixon should be so optimistic. A team that was obviously trying to find itself narrowly beat Wofford and Duquesne and lost to rebuilding Indiana.
Still, Dixon wouldn’t budge. He expected his Panthers to play like the teams that averaged 28 victories over the previous four seasons, with no excuses.
“We’ve been winners, we’ve got players who’ve always been winners and we’re going to be winners,” Dixon said.
Here’s the surprise: The No. 16 Panthers (14-2, 4-0 in Big East) are playing every bit as well as their coach expected. They’re going into Saturday afternoon’s game against Louisville (12-5, 3-1) on a seven-game winning streak that includes consecutive road victories over No. 5 Syracuse, Cincinnati and No. 15 Connecticut.
As usual, Pitt is winning despite lacking experience and upper-tier recruits — freshman Dante Taylor is the team’s lone high school All-American. Not one of Pitt’s regulars averaged more than 8.4 points per game last season.
“We didn’t lower any of our expectations, so I don’t think I’m surprised by where we’re at,” Dixon said. “Our demands were the same, our players understood that and our staff understood that. We made that very clear from the beginning. We’ve improved throughout the year, from November to January. We talked about what a different team we could be. We don’t set any bars.”
The team that scored only 15 points in the first half against New Hampshire — the two teams combined for 22 points in the lowest-scoring half of the shot clock era — now looks like it could be a handful for any team it plays.
“They’re still very good,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “They can play with anybody in the country.”
The Panthers again are playing the lock-down defense that is the trademark of a Dixon-coached team — they are No. 8 nationally in team defense, allowing 57.9 points — and are getting major contributions from players who played minor roles a season ago.
Sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs is the most-improved player on one of the nation’s most surprising teams, raising his scoring average from 4.3 points last season to 17.5. Gibbs benefited from playing on the Dixon-coached United States under-19 team that won a world championship in New Zealand last summer.
The Panthers also got much better after their two most experienced players, 6-6 junior forward Gilbert Brown and 6-3 senior guard Jermaine Dixon, returned last month. Brown missed 11 games after being academically ineligible and Dixon sat out eight games with a broken right foot.
“When they got Dixon and Brown back, that’s when they became a great basketball team,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Friday. “When they got them back, they not only became experienced but also became much more explosive offensively.”
Much of Pitt’s renowned toughness and defensive mindset returned when Brown and Dixon did. Practices became tighter and more competitive, with Dixon saying it helped having two experienced players to explain to the younger players what was expected.
“And the young guys are pushing the older guys to perform at a high level,” Brown said. “It continues throughout the whole team. Coach Dixon has played a big part in pushing us and making us the team we are.”
Nine of the Panthers’ final 15 games are at the Petersen Events Center, where they’ve won their last 30. Louisville is one of the few teams that has figured out how to win there, handing Pitt two of its 10 home-court losses in 134 games since the arena opened in 2002.
“Pitt is playing the best basketball along with (No. 4) Villanova in the Big East and they present a number of problems,” Pitino said. “Certainly we have a big mountain to climb.”