Kovacevic: Dixon can't run from history
SALT LAKE CITY — Know that smile Jamie Dixon will flash when he thinks a referee has butchered a call?
The one where his arms are folded, the head tilted a bit, the foot tapping, the skin seemingly going green as it's about to burst through the suit seams … and yet his face somehow conveys sheer, unfettered joy, his every tooth showing and cheeks stretched like Christmas morning?
Well, as a public service to Pitt basketball fans, I'm here to break it to you (MEGA-SPOILER WARNING): It isn't remotely real.
Yeah, you're welcome.
But you know how I became sure?
As part of a good talk Dixon and I had shortly before the Panthers embarked for Utah, the coach flashed almost exactly that same smile upon my broaching the topic of his personal history in the NCAA Tournament.
Does it bother him, I asked, that no matter his many successes at Pitt, so many identify him with all those early exits?
“For a coach, every loss bothers you, so I can't say losing a game doesn't bother me,” Dixon replied without hesitation and, yes, with that smile. “I do understand that every game you lose in the NCAA Tournament, that's the game people are going to talk about the whole offseason. For 63 teams — no, for 350 teams — that's what the offseason is all about. And as the tournament's become bigger, that's become even more true.”
“But there's no one who wants to win more than me, and there probably isn't anyone who takes a loss worse than me. I understand that, so I certainly won't fault anyone else with getting upset with a loss, I guess.”
Suffice it to say, it is, indeed, personal history.
How could it not be at this point?
Dixon's in his 10th year as Pitt's coach, and he is not a good coach but a great one. I'll say that now, and I'll repeat it even if his Panthers fall to Wichita State in their opening game here Thursday.
The man has earned that and then some. His 262 wins are third most in NCAA history through any coach's first decade, his Big East winning percentage was the greatest in conference history, he won three conference titles, and yeah, he's at least gotten the Panthers to the Big Dance nine times now. Every year but last year.
Any Pitt fan taking that for granted is spoiled beyond reason.
At the same time, there should be no disputing and no downplaying — not by Dixon or anyone — that there are gaping holes in the resume: Pitt has failed to get through the opening weekend five times, failed to get past the Sweet 16 all but once, failed to reach the Final Four … well, since 1941.
Wait, there's more.
Under Dixon, the Panthers have never beaten a higher-seeded team.
They've been upset three times by opponents seeded seven or more spots lower.
And if you toss out the silly College Basketball Invitational last spring, the Panthers are now 7-9 in all postseason play over the past five years. The seven teams they beat: Wright State, VCU, Oral Roberts, East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State, Xavier, Oakland, UNC Asheville and a lousy St. John's team in a Big East prelim last year.
When one man is the common denominator, that's where the fingers point.
Dixon makes the case that most tournament champions go on a run with at least one or two buzzer-beaters or an OT thriller. “You've got to have one or two of those that just go your way,” he said. Pitt has lost its past three NCAA Tournament games to Butler by one, Xavier by three and Villanova by 2.
That's the crux of his explanation that, “I don't think anybody judges a program by just that. If you're judging a program, you judge the program. You've got to look at every game. I think there are just going to be some people who focus on the positives and some people who only focus on … the loss. No one thing defines you. You have to look at the whole thing.”
This is where we'll have to disagree. The very object of the whole thing, as defined not by any one entity but by the sport itself, is to win a championship. That is bigger than the whole. Nothing unfair about it.
Plain and simple, Dixon hasn't gotten that done.
Will he this time?
Depends on how you view expectations for this young but talented but can't-really-shoot group he's got. Dixon started two freshmen, Steven Adams and James Robinson, and he's stuck by them. That was the right move. Both will be back next season, so maybe that will offer a fairer barometer of the coach's latest handiwork.
But let's not pretend a loss to Wichita State or even top-seeded Gonzaga this week won't heap onto an already painful pile.