Are Pitt, Jamie Dixon a little too consistent?
PITTSBURGH – Anymore, the word consistency has become a bit of a backhanded compliment. In today’s world of sports clichés, being consistent is akin to being fundamentally sound, or old school – although old school itself is considered to be, strangely, rather bad-ass: scrappy, tough, blue-collar.
But simply consistent? Nothing sexy there. (I recently brought up to a couple of Wisconsin basketball staffers how impressive the program’s consistency has been in the Bo Ryan era. I meant it as a compliment; it was not taken that way.)
Consistency is not what high school athletes look for in their idols. Consistent players do not get endorsement deals, unless they are Derek Jeter; instead, consistent players get appreciative, polite applause because they “do things the right way,” or they “do more with less.” We expect these consistent teams to win, but we never expect them to go on a magical run – always in the Big Dance, never in the Final Four.
All of this is a prelude to why I think consistency is one of the most underappreciated words in modern American sports, and why I think Jamie Dixon – Pitt basketball’s stunningly consistent leader, fundamentally excellent teacher and hugely admired player developer – may be one of the most underappreciated coaches there is.
Last season, Pitt advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 12th time in the past 13 years. The first two seasons in that span were under Ben Howland (with Dixon as an assistant), the final 11 with Dixon as head coach.
Do you know how many of the other 350 Division I teams in college basketball have been in 12 or more of the past 13 NCAA tournaments?
Bet you wouldn’t have put Pitt in that list.
There are three bluebloods (Kansas has made 25 tournaments in a row, Duke 19, Michigan State 17), one perennial sports powerhouse (Texas) and two schools considered models of basketball consistency (Gonzaga and Wisconsin, each of which has made 16 in a row).
Dixon does not collect McDonald’s All-Americans like a Sean Miller, or provide endless headline fodder like a John Calipari, or have a legendary aura like a Mike Krzyzewski. He doesn’t have a school with a blueblood brand like a Steve Alford at UCLA or a copyrighted brand of basketball like Shaka Smart’s Havoc at VCU.
Instead, Dixon’s brand is consistency: simply winning, with players who simply outwork opponents.
It’s a work ethic that plays as well in this blue-collar city as it has in the standings. Among BCS schools over the past 12 years, Pitt has the third-best record, behind only Duke and Kansas. The Panthers might not be the highest-scoring, fastest-paced team in the nation – after all, those statistical measurements are too sexy for Pitt basketball – but the Panthers are always among the most efficient teams in the country, second to only Duke in offensive efficiency in the ACC last season.
On a late-summer evening earlier this year, I went up Cardiac Hill to Petersen Events Center for a team workout. I wanted to peek behind the curtain to see the attention to detail that makes Dixon’s teams such a consistent force.
Dixon was shouting at his players about their defensive stance as they worked on footwork for on-ball defense: “Wider! Wider! Wider!” Virtually the entire workout was dedicated to fine-tuning perimeter defense. Dixon preached fundamentally sound closeouts: early hands, long hands, contesting every shot.
During one drill, Dixon kept intervening with minor adjustments. When a perimeter defender squared up to a ballhandler, Dixon wanted one hand low and one hand high, above the ball. The coach made 3-inch adjustments to where defenders’ hands were. He made sure they sprinted halfway to ballhandlers and stutter-stepped as they closed out, then put their hands up the moment they closed out instead of waiting for a shot.
No, it wasn’t sexy. Players hardly put up a shot in those two hours of workouts. But it was the sort of teaching atmosphere that explained why Dixon’s players – rarely the McDonald’s All-Americans of the bluebloods – are always playing above their supposed abilities and why Pitt teams always seem to get better as March gets closer.
“There’s never a letdown, never a slow time,” director of operations Brian Regan told me. “If there’s a moment you can coach basketball and teach basketball, Jamie’s there.”
It hasn’t always been this way for Pitt basketball. Even thinking back to Pitt’s glory years in the early days of the Big East, those teams with Charles Smith and Jerome Lane and Sean Miller never won more than one game in the Big East tournament or in the NCAA tournament. Things changed after Howland’s arrival in 1999: Big East championships, NCAA tournament appearance after NCAA tournament appearance, adjusted expectations.
And now, those expectations have led to the only hometown rub against Dixon: that he’s never been able to get over that hump. Pitt has been to the Sweet 16 five times since Howland arrived but never to a Final Four. After Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan made the Final Four last season, Arizona’s Miller took the unofficial title of “best coach who hasn’t made a Final Four” – but Dixon is close behind.
“We’ve created a standard, and people are waiting for us to exceed it,” Dixon told me from the sideline as his team continued its workout.
It’s true: Once you keep getting in the Big Dance, people get impatient when you don’t go further. It’s the sign of a fan base spoiled with consistency. It’s a problem most schools would kill for.
It also shows how short our memory can be as sports fans.
Brandin Knight’s memory is a bit longer.
In the late 1990s, Knight was recruited to Pitt by Ralph Willard – Howland’s predecessor, someone who didn’t make a single tournament in his five years at Pitt – and stayed for the Howland regime.
“My last two years we went from being a laughingstock to winning the league both years,” said Knight, now an assistant for Dixon.
They did it then the way they do it now: by finding tough, unselfish and often unheralded players who know how to pass the ball, and by helping those players improve dramatically in their time at Pitt.
Players who come to Pitt are well aware of Pitt’s scrappy reputation as well as the fan base’s impatience to take the next step — and they freely speak about both.
“Every year it builds, just tournament appearance after tournament appearance, but we’re looking for more than just making it at this point,” said Mike Young, a versatile sophomore big man who grew up near Pittsburgh. “We know that defense is what wins you big-time games. Good teams win big games with defense.”
“We’ve always been the underdog – that’s what gives us a chip on our shoulder,” said senior swingman Cameron Wright, Pitt’s only returning double-digit scorer from last season.
As players finished up their workout, Dixon stood nearby and mused about this team’s chances in an ACC that could be a historically tough conference. Yes, the Panthers lost their leading scorer (Lamar Patterson) and leading rebounder (Talib Zanna), but they return their other three starters and seven of their top nine scorers. Wright will score a bunch of points as a slashing two-guard, but not until he’s back from a broken foot suffered in September. Durand Johnson will be back from an ACL injury and ought to provide the 3-point shooting last season’s team lacked. Juco transfer Sheldon Jeter gives Pitt an excellent offensive rebounder, and junior point guard James Robinson serves as the steady face of that Dixon brand of consistency, with a remarkable 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season.
Could this be the Pitt team that finally makes a magical run in the NCAA tournament? As the workout was winding down, Dixon spoke about how versatile this group will be, a team on which multiple players can play multiple positions and create all sorts of matchup problems.
“We’re going to be a very well-balanced team,” Dixon said.
Then the model of consistency smiled.
“That doesn’t do much for the headlines, does it?”
It doesn’t. But when you’re this consistently good, sexy headlines don’t really matter that much, do they?