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Pitt goes from sleeper to favorite role
There he was sitting on one of the podiums next to his most accomplished player, a senior guard who had recently undergone a pair of foot surgeries and averaged a whopping 8.4 points the previous season.
Yet there was Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon a little less than a year ago at Big East Media Day, with a wide smile that never left his face.
Evidently, Dixon knew something no one else did. His Panthers were picked to finish ninth in the Big East, and I thought that may even be a tad bit optimistic.
To me, Dixon may as well have made his travel plans for the NIT.
This was Rebuilding 101.
They had lost Sam Young and DaJuan Blair to the NBA, starting point guard Levance Fields signed a lucrative deal to play overseas and a fourth starter, Tyrell Biggs, was also gone.
Jermaine Dixon, a role guy who was coming off two offseason foot surgeries, was all that was left from the starting unit that took the Panthers to the Elite Eight.
This would be the end of Jamie Dixon’s magical ride, the one that had him taking over after his buddy, Ben Howland, left in 2003 and getting to the Big Dance each of his first six seasons at the helm.
"I just thought we’d be OK,” the eighth-year coach said. "My biggest worry was at point guard, but I felt that was answered in the summer.”
That’s when Ashton Gibbs was thrust into running the Under-19 USA Basketball team in New Zealand, the one that was coached by Dixon and wound up winning all nine of its games en route to the gold medal.
The Panthers weren’t just OK last season. They somehow went out and won 25 games, went 13-5 in Big East play and nearly knocked off Xavier to advance to the Sweet 16.
This year will be different, and Jamie Dixon is well aware.
Brad Wanamaker will spearhead Pittsburgh's offense this season.Jonathan Daniel
"We’ve got the same players we had last year except for Jermaine, and it looks like we’ll be picked No. 1 in the league,” he said. "But I really don’t think our guys give that much thought.”
Just a couple years ago, there was plenty of talk about how the Panthers were unable to get over the hump and advance past the Sweet 16. Well, Jamie Dixon’s team went to the Elite Eight and if not for a Scottie Reynolds layup, would have made the Final Four in 2009.
Now, the talk is about getting to the Final Four — and it could be a realistic goal this season.
The starting backcourt of Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker is back. Gibbs is a junior who led the team in scoring (15.7), while Wanamaker, a senior, has managed to fly under the radar despite putting up terrific all-around numbers a year ago: 12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg.
"Ashton’s really good and I think people are starting to notice, but nobody talks about Brad and he’s really good, also," his coach said.
Fifth-year senior Gilbert Brown will likely slide into Jermaine Dixon’s spot in the starting lineup and Gary McGhee, who Jamie Dixon calls the best defensive big man he’s ever had, will return in the middle.
Nasir Robinson is back after starting 34 games, but he’ll have his hands full in trying to retain his spot now that big men Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor and J.J. Richardson have all improved.
That’s five guys for two spots up front.
"We’re deep, but I’m not sure it’s the deepest we’ve ever been,” Jamie Dixon said.
While the program still hasn’t been to a Final Four as Villanova did a couple years ago or won a national title as UConn has done on a couple occasions, no Big East school can match Pittsburgh’s winning ways over the past nine years.
Pittsburgh’s overall mark of 245-65 and 79 percent winning percentage (UConn is second at 75 percent) could be misleading because some would point to a cupcake non-conference schedule implemented by Howland and maintained by Dixon.
However, the Panthers have a 109-41 record in Big East play and are the only school that has won more than 70 percent of its league contests. UConn is second at 103-47 (.687 percent), and Syracuse is third at 96-54 (64 percent).
Don’t expect the program to take a dip anytime soon.
Dixon, with the help of new assistant Pat Skerry, just received a commitment from its highest-ranked player in the history of the program with 2012 Canadian big man Khem Birch — who is in just about everyone’s top five players in the nation.
That’s why, come later this month, it’s likely Dixon will have that same smile on his face at Big East Media Day.
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