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Harris: Pitt hoops thrives, despite few 1st-round picks

| Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 12:07 a.m.
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The Spurs' DeJuan Blair (left) cheers on their team in the third quarter while taking on the Heat during Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 18, 2013, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

Pitt's basketball program occasionally produces a NBA first-round draft pick.

Just occasionally, however.

New Zealand native Steven Adams is expected to be among the top dozen selections in Thursday's draft. That would be the earliest selection of a Pitt basketball player since Indiana drafted Vonteego Cummings at No. 26 overall in 1999.

Prior to Cummings, there's a black hole among Pitt players selected in the first round. In 1988, the 76ers took Charles Smith at No. 3 overall. Jerome Lane went No. 23 to Denver. Then in 1994, Eric Mobley went 18th overall to Milwaukee.

That's four first-round draft picks at Pitt in the past 25 years. Not much of a track record for producing high NBA Draft picks.

But don't blame Jamie Dixon, who signed a 10-year contract extension in March following completion of his 10th season as Pitt's coach.

Recently, Dixon has produced his share of NBA talent.

“I remember a couple years back one of the things that was often brought up was us not having many NBA players. Now we have quite a few of them,” Dixon said Monday, citing the second-round selections of former Pitt standouts Sam Young (No. 36 overall) and DeJuan Blair (No. 37) in 2009, and Aaron Gray in 2007 (49th). “That's what happens over time if you have success. Those are good things for your program.”

Forget the lack of first-round picks on Pitt's roster. Under Dixon, Pitt has averaged 26.2 wins per season and played in the NCAA Tournament nine out of 10 years.

Regardless of who plays, Pitt wins.

“Sam and DeJuan were both drafted early second round,” Dixon said. “They could just as easily have been first-round picks.''

It all works because of Dixon, who seems to turn down job offers every year to remain at Pitt. Among active coaches, Dixon ranks seventh overall in victories.

Dixon wins, and wins relatively big, without an abundance of star players. Adams departed for the NBA after one college season, even though his game needs work. Is he a star? He's an athletic 7-footer with no offensive game but plenty of upside. In today's NBA, where centers play on the perimeter, Adams' skills translate into a lottery pick.

“We're excited about Steven this year,” Dixon said. “I think we all know the draft is about projecting young players. Size is a factor. International guys get drafted higher for certain reasons.”

Using the NBA Draft as a barometer, Dixon probably does more with less than just about any major college coach.

If you know Dixon like I know Dixon, appreciate what he's accomplished at Pitt.

“Guys develop — you want them to get better,” Dixon said. “More often than not, those are the guys that have great (college) careers.”

Those are the guys who play for Dixon.

If Pitt was a college basketball power on a level with Syracuse, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, the Panthers would have a lot more than Cummings, Mobley, Smith and Lane to show for the school's total number of first-round draft picks since 1988.

Elite college basketball players don't matriculate to Pitt with the same frequency as, say, Syracuse. That isn't a reflection on Pitt, as much as it is the perception that Syracuse offers more.

I'm using Syracuse as an example because Syracuse, like Pitt, was a longtime member of the Big East that's also joining the ACC.

Since 2003, six Syracuse players have been selected in the first round: Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, Fab Melo and Dion Waiters.

Anthony, Warrick, Flynn, Johnson and Waiters were top-10 selections; during that span, coach Jim Boeheim guided Syracuse to a pair of Final Fours and won a national title with Anthony in 2003. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams is expected to make it seven first-rounders under Boeheim in the past decade.

Pitt doesn't operate on a level playing field with some of its biggest rivals. National champion Louisville is the No. 1 revenue-producing basketball program in the country.

Pitt doesn't spend money on its basketball program the way Louisville does, but the Panthers still win relatively big, still go to the NCAA Tournament almost every year, and still pack Petersen Events Center — 11 consecutive seasons of sellouts, and counting.

To his credit, Dixon makes basketball relevant in football-mad Western Pennsylvania.

ACC or no ACC, that doesn't figure to change anytime soon.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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