Kovacevic: Dixon right man at right time
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013, 11:39 p.m.
Jamie Dixon sure answered the question, didn't he?
Just two days after Pitt's latest NCAA Tournament turkey was accompanied by another non-answer from Dixon regarding the growing speculation he'd soon bolt for USC, the university and its most accomplished basketball coach responded with a flourish: Dixon signed a new 10-year contract through 2022-23 and firmly stated he will “finish my career” right where he is.
I'll say it yet again: Dixon isn't a good coach but a great one.
I'll repeat this, too, from what I wrote Thursday in Salt Lake City after the Wichita State loss: If Dixon stays, it isn't good news for Pitt but great news.
Yes, he deserves criticism for the postseason failures. There's certainly been enough of that from this corner, and it'll keep coming every time his team crumbles when it counts most. But you know the man's overall record, his history, his pedigree.
And if you're like me, you believe he'll take that next big step in his very next season.
“We need to get older, and we will be,” Dixon said by phone Saturday night. “But I'm excited about every team going forward and ... I can't wait until next year because I know we have a great group.”
Let's break it down.
Steven Adams vowed Thursday he'd be back for his sophomore year, but don't tell me that wouldn't have changed had Dixon left. That's still another positive to the news Saturday.
And now that both are locks, it's time for both to fully embrace this notion: The 2013-14 season is it for Pitt.
Because that might be all there is of Adams before he's off to the NBA. As Dixon said, “He's going to be a great player,” and those can't go to waste.
It's too bad it took until the Wichita State game for the 7-foot Kiwi to assert himself as he did that day with those 13 points and 11 rebounds.
It's too bad Dixon didn't demand that his guards pound the ball inside in all those nonconference duds, or Adams might be even further along. He should have touched the ball as often as Aaron Gray in his senior year.
It's also too bad, candidly, that Adams waited as long as he did to find that next emotional notch.
To be fair, he's only 19, he came from a background unlike that of most, and he hadn't played basketball at anywhere near a Big East level. Still, there were times when Adams' off-the-court aloofness carried onto it, and that will have to change.
“Steven's got his own way, for sure,” forward J.J. Moore was saying last week, “but he's a great teammate.”
No one would dispute it, but Adams has got to get fully, visibly engaged. He's got to stop thinking, much less saying stuff like, “It's not about me. I'm just one of the guys trying to do my part.” He means well. I get it. But a star's attitude comes with a star's acceptance of his or her own talent.
People talk about Pitt needing to get that one special player. Ask me, and Adams is it. I believe more than ever after Thursday.
This is the critical second step. Someone's got to get the ball to Adams. Tray Woodall didn't for whatever reason, but freshman James Robinson often did.
Adams and Robinson can make for quite a combo.
“Those guys put as much effort into it as we did,” Woodall said, comparing Adams and Robinson to Pitt's seniors. “They came in here as freshmen and fought as if it was their last year.”
Robinson had a bit of a breakout Thursday, as well, beyond his seven points, three assists. While Woodall was imploding, the kid was forced to take over ball-handling duties. And when the perimeter offense was firing blanks, he went hardest to the hoop.
There's another level here, too. It was easy to forget in seeing Robinson's savvy that he was so young, just as it was easy to get frustrated with his inability to finish on the drive. But Pitt's coaches are richly confident the shooting touch will come.
If this past team was Woodall's, the next will belong to a more polished, more battle-tested Robinson.
That will be an upgrade.
Here the picture begins to muddy.
Lamar Patterson was seen by Dixon and staff as Pitt's most talented player entering this past season, but it never came close to materializing. He scored 10 points per game, about the same as last year, and didn't show the outside touch he'd flashed as a sophomore. On Thursday, he produced one field goal in 21 minutes and looked as gassed as anyone.
Patterson needs to get lighter, quicker and sharper, and intangibly he needs to embrace being a go-to guy.
Dixon isn't exactly lowering expectations for Patterson, saying Saturday: “I think that's what we look for in juniors, to become seniors and take another step. We think Lamar can make that step. We believe in him, that with another great summer he can become a premier player in the ACC.”
If Patterson keeps the status quo, his starting job should be up for grabs.
Another junior, Talib Zanna, improved as much as any Pitt player season over season, although he faded some in conference play. He's a fierce competitor and relentless worker, and I don't doubt for a second he'll be better next year. He'll not only help Adams on the boards — a Pitt strength — but also score a little more.
And just imagine the room created for Zanna if Adams rises up.
“Steven and I know we can do the job inside,” Zanna said. “Give us the ball. We'll do it.”
So assuming Adams, Robinson, Patterson and Zanna start, Dixon still faces the same question that just dogged Pitt all winter: Who will score?
Some of that has to be strategic, whether feeding Adams or running more to take better advantage of their depth or inserting a little more imagination into the half-court offense.
But mostly, that scoring will have to result from players stepping up. And I'm not yet sure Pitt has that player.
The fun choice here is Moore. Dixon loves his defense, and his 3-point shooting and out-of-the-gym dunks make him a multiple threat. But he's undersized as a power forward at 6-6 and doesn't handle the ball well enough to hang on the perimeter.
Others in this mix — Durand Johnson, Cam Wright and Trey Zeigler — have similar-sized holes but also similar potential. Johnson teases a bit here because he has that 3-point shot the team desperately needs, but Dixon won't — and shouldn't — tolerate his current defensive shortcomings.
Here's another: One of Dixon's recruits for next season is hotshot guard Josh Newkirk of Raleigh, N.C. He's more of a driving force — headlined by a devastating crossover and tantalizing athleticism — but it's hard to imagine the staff starting a freshman in back-to-back years.
On the other hand, if Adams rises above the rim in any significant way, there shouldn't be any holding back. The clock will be ticking.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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