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Kovacevic: With Dixon, a fuller perspective is necessary

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 11:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon says it is a “huge challenge” to schedule “the best teams possible” during nonconference play.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon calls a play during the second half of an NCAA Tournament third-round game Saturday, March 22, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon reacts as Florida's Casey Prather steals the ball from Talib Zanna during the second half of an NCAA Tournament third-round game Saturday, March 22, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. — It's Jamie Dixon's fault.

No, really, not being glib here. It's on him.

He's the head coach of the Pitt team that fell hard 61-45 to Florida, the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed, and he's the one who, shortly after the final horn Saturday at Amway Center, described himself as “extremely disappointed” in his team's performance.

And the man was only clearing his throat.

“We're a better team than what we showed, and we've been playing better basketball,” Dixon said. “We just didn't get it done, and I take responsibility for that. We didn't execute well enough, didn't rebound well enough, and as I told the guys, I'll take responsibility for that. We didn't block out, didn't execute offensively and, again, I take responsibility for that.”

Sounds about right.

Collegiate athletics are centered on the coach, and there's nowhere for Dixon to deflect not having made a Sweet 16 for five years now, nor this dud of a defeat Saturday after this determined group had entered on a high. Dixon recruits the players, teaches them and helps them through school, all to great effect in the regular season. But the primary mission is to win an NCAA championship.

Or at least reach Pitt's first Final Four since 1941.

How can that not be on the coach?

All that said, let's also push for a fuller perspective. Which is to say, let's go beyond the usual Pitt passion for self-deprecating sports narratives.

In fact, let's take them on one at a time:

Dixon can't win the big one.

This one will live to see another year. The Panthers beat one top-25 team all season — North Carolina in the ACC Tournament — and their only victory at the NCAAs was against an awful Colorado team. That's not good enough.

But lumping Florida onto that list would be silly. The Gators were bigger, faster, deeper, more skilled, more everything. This wasn't flaming out against Butler or Xavier. It wasn't even getting beaten up by Wichita State, then watching the latter soar to the Final Four. This was the unquestioned best team in the country.

“The numbers don't lie,” Talib Zanna said. “They outplayed us. They out-executed everything.”

Dixon is stubborn with his strategy.

He can be. And in this game, he took too long to counteract Florida's press.

But for the season, he never has been more flexible. He used the zone more than ever. He implemented to great effect midcourt and low-post traps that helped Pitt peak late. He was instrumental, too, in an assist-filled offense that drew raves from opponents.

That bodes well for Pitt's future, even if it meant little against Florida's airtight defense Saturday.

Dixon botches too many set plays in waning seconds.

This happened too many times for coincidence, especially on inbounds passes. But it most assuredly did not happen on the final play of the first half Saturday when Scottie Wilbekin launched that running 3-pointer to give Florida a five-point lead and what Wilbekin would call “a huge boost for all of us.”

Pitt looked pretty stupid not fouling Wilbekin with three fouls to give and 3.5 seconds on the clock, and maybe Dixon did in some eyes, too. One problem: Dixon had ordered freshman Chris Jones to foul, and Jones didn't.

Jones' teammates went out of their way to protect Jones, and Dixon just kept pointing the finger at himself.

‘I'll take full responsibility for it,” he said. “We all know what happened. But we didn't get it done, and that's on me.”

No, not at all.

Dixon can't recruit that big-time player.

Lamar Patterson finished his Pitt career by putting up just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. But he also finished as one of the Panthers' top 10 all-time performers in points, rebounds and assists, at times capable of dominance.

More like Patterson are needed, especially now that he's gone, but this particular narrative falls flat.

“Lamar's one of the great players to come through here,” Cameron Wright said.

Dixon prefers scrappy guards to pure shooters.

This could take on new life with the Panthers' miserable outside shooting Saturday, in particular James Robinson's five failed field goals and Wright's 3-of-10 shooting.

But the injury loss of Durand Johnson was crushing in that regard, and no one inside the program pretended otherwise.

Johnson's a sophomore, and he'll be back. So will freshman Josh Newkirk, one of the few pleasant surprises Saturday with eight points. Both are shooters first.

“I'm looking forward to being part of that shooting,” Johnson said afterward. “It was killing me not to be out there.”

Dixon relies too much on five-year seniors.

Which would you rather have: a month of Khem Birch whining, a year of Steven Adams learning or everything that the university got from Patterson and Zanna?

“Our career together was long,” Patterson said through red eyes. “But now that it's over, I feel like it wasn't long enough.”

Dixon never plays freshmen.

Wow, is this book closed.

“A lot of us got good experience,” said Mike Young, the only freshman starter but one of many to play a ton. “I think that's going to mean something.”

That blasted out-of-conference schedule!

Issue No. 1 now and forever, am I right?

Don't expect it to go away so long as Dixon keeps stacking cupcakes. It should go away. Dixon should add two to three more quality opponents, not for rankings or RPI but because it would make the team better.

That said, this Pitt team peaked when it counted. It didn't fade.

It just ran into an opponent that was better. And that's the part of the story Dixon needs to rewrite.

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