Kovacevic: Dixon has questions to answer

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 11:32 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — This was the worst of them.

Worse than that drive by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds.

Worse than Butler.

Worse, even, than Pitt being left out of the NCAA Tournament altogether last year.

This was Jamie Dixon's Panthers seemingly set upon playing out every negative stereotype attached to the program's many postseason misfortunes. They were nervous and grimacing. Making mistakes at every turn. Committing fouls, then complaining about them. Missing and missing and missing.

And crying at the conclusion.

Wichita State 73, Pitt 55.

Yeah, that's really what the scoreboard at EnergySolutions Arena flashed after this latest one-and-done. The same outfit that clubbed Georgetown and Syracuse was eliminated not by some buzzer-beater or lousy luck, as we've seen so often in the past, but after a smallish, snarly Wichita State wolfpack utterly embarrassed Pitt at its own game. The Shockers were more physical, more dogged, more annoying … you know, everything the Panthers are right up until it matters.

The. Worst.

One look at poor Tray Woodall breaking down at the postgame podium told it all, the weight of his final line — two points, five turnovers and five fouls — too much to take.

“I'm sorry I let my team down,” he squeezed out as the tears came. “It's the worst game I ever played.”

But once all the emotion evaporates, however long that takes, hard questions need to be asked and answered by Dixon as to why this tournament storyline remains as sadly persistent as the regular-season successes.

Chief among those, of course: Will Dixon be back next season?

I asked Dixon, on that same podium but after Woodall and Dante Taylor had left, exactly that.

Dixon paused, ran his hand over his face, then finally responded with a crack in the voice: “I just had my point guard break down. Furthest thing from my mind.”

It's exactly the class you expect from a man like Dixon. It was easy to see he was distraught for his players far more than himself.

But it wasn't an answer.

Neither was it an answer when Dixon later responded to an unrelated question: “I'm looking forward to watching these guys and coaching these guys and them being better next year. I can't wait because I know we have a great group, and I'm excited about it.”

At some point, preferably soon, Dixon needs to definitively state he's not leaving. Not for USC, per all the rumors, or anywhere else.

I happen to believe he'll stay and, far more important, so do his two departing seniors.

“He's a great coach, a great person, and I know that further on in his career here, they're going to win the national championship. I feel it,” Taylor said. “He loves Pittsburgh. It's his home. I know he doesn't want to leave this program. He loves it so much.”

“I think Coach Dixon loves Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh loves Coach Dixon,” Woodall said. “I think he'll repay them with staying.”

That would be sensational news for Pitt.

I'll say it again, unsavory as it might sound in this aftermath, but Dixon is not a good but a great coach. The university and our city are lucky to have him. Anyone engaged in team-building in any sport will attest that the hardest part of establishing a winning program is creating a consistent chance at a championship. Dixon's done that year after year.

But that doesn't mean what he's doing is enough. That's painfully obvious by now, probably even to the famously stubborn Dixon.

I can't pin this flop entirely on the coach. Not when his point guard implodes. Not when Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson hit one field goal each. James Robinson was dead-on when he said, “We're the ones on the court. We didn't get the job done.”

But ask me, and the Panthers looked like a team bracing for defeat. From warmups onward, there was no talking, no smiling, no extra bounce. And by the time they emerged for the second half — even though down by only five points! — they looked, to a man, as if they'd spent the intermission swallowing bowling balls.

That is 100 percent on the coach.

So is entering a promising year without a go-to shooter. Dixon tends to favor scrappy-type guards, but he desperately needs to recruit another in the Ashton Gibbs mold.

So is not allowing a team capable of running to do so.

So is not demanding that his guards feed Steven Adams more.

So is downplaying or outright dismissing the tournament issue, as if beating Bethune-Cookman somehow carries equal value.

Dixon did make adjustments this year. Give credit where due. He started two freshmen in Adams and Robinson. He went with a 10-man rotation. He altered offensive strategies. All would have been unthinkable in years past.

It's well past time to fully face that more is needed.

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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