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Kovacevic: Dixon's lesson lights Pitt's way

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon looks on during a game against Syracuse on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2013, at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon watches as J.J. Moore goes in for a second-half dunk against Syracuse on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2013, at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

A good coach makes the right moves.

A very good coach adjusts when those moves invariably get checkmated.

A great coach, and that's a patently fair way to describe Jamie Dixon after his decade at Pitt, adjusts even when the team succeeds, even against his own instinctive judgment.

That's the rock and the hard place in which Dixon was lodged two weeks ago on the team's flight back from Providence. The Panthers had won, 68-64, but one line on the scoresheet kept gnawing at him. The one with all the dashes next to guard Cam Wright's name.

“I didn't play Cam,” Dixon was telling me over the weekend, in a tone befitting confession. “And that was a mistake.”

Hard to see why, at least on the surface. Wright's a redshirt sophomore, he'd scored a total of eight points in the previous five games, and he'd been prone to turnovers.

But that's not how Dixon was thinking. It wasn't about the individual. The coach has been trying to sell his players — and himself, really — on the concept he calls “10 strong,” for the 10 starters he essentially deploys as two rotating quartets.

And yet, as Dixon admitted, the sales job has been tough: “Yeah, there have been times when I've wondered about it. But not now. I'm comfortable now.”

Small wonder.

The very next game against DePaul, Wright logged 21 minutes and delivered eight points, four boards, two assists, two steals. Overall, in the three games since that decision, Pitt has twice had 10 players show up on the scoresheet.

And get this: If not for a couple of late Tray Woodall free throws Saturday, the Panthers would have pulled off their 65-55 slam of No. 6 Syracuse without anyone in double-digit scoring.

That's astounding.

And you know what?

This is precisely what the Pitt program needed.

No, not just the 18-5 record the Panthers take into their Monday night meeting with Seton Hall at Petersen Events Center. Nor their return to the AP poll, which we'll no doubt see before tipoff.

That's old news in these parts.

What I'm talking about is Dixon correctly pegging his priorities after all those Sweet 16 roadblocks and the season-long setback a year ago. I'm talking about Dixon getting outside the deeply embedded comfort zone of senior-heavy, scrappy teams that looked fabulous in February but melted in March because they never improved.

So give the man credit.

He needed to recruit elite talent, and he landed not only Steven Adams, the top prize of his tenure, but also James Robinson.

He needed to trust freshmen more, and both kids have been fixtures.

He needed to modify strategies to suit the new players' skills and ... well, he's getting there. At least they're all running more.

Above all, he needed numbers to weather the fatigue and foul trouble of tournaments.

Oh, and he needed to hold firm.

“On one hand, you look at Cam's turnovers and wonder why I'd put him back out there against DePaul, which is a pressing team,” Dixon said. “But this is who we are. We're 10 players. This isn't the way we've always done it here, and it's not how most teams are doing it. But we believe — I believe — in what we have, and this is how we're going to go.”

Honestly, I'm not ready to hazard so much as a guess as to how far this group will go. Adams shows more glimpses each game, but he still struggles to get the ball from his hips to the hoop. Robinson's passing and defense are mature beyond his years, but his shooting touch isn't. One game these Panthers are a mess, and the next Jim Boeheim is almost overbearing with praise and saying stuff like, “I don't think you'll see them lose many games the rest of the way.”

But that uncertainty is also the fun of this Pitt season, isn't it?

We used to know, not guess, at how good the team was this time of year. We knew what was there with Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Aaron Gray and the like.

Now, we really don't.

I don't think Dixon does, either. But I do get the sense from our richly upbeat chat Saturday that he's genuinely enjoying that very thing.

“We're not where we want to be yet, for sure,” he said in a tone suggesting that's a good thing. “There's no question this team's improved. A lot. That's what you look at. We're getting better every day, and we're excited about where we're going to be.”

Boeheim might be the only one who's got this figured out.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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