Gorman: Nothing perfect about Pitt's finish
SALT LAKE CITY
Pitt is either a classic overachiever that hits its ceiling in the NCAA Tournament or an underachiever whose early exits fail to live up to expectations.
Either way, it needs to change.
“We've just got to be ready to play big games on a big stage,” Pitt fifth-year senior guard Tray Woodall said. “We've got a lot of tough players. We recruit tough kids. We've got to make sure we have our best games toward the end of the season.”
Which means Jamie Dixon has to change his approach. That's asking a lot of the Panthers coach, who believes in his philosophy.
“He's one of those guys that he's a perfectionist,” Woodall said. “He wants to win just as bad as we do. He's helped me become a perfectionist and want to be perfect on each and every play, every possession.”
That's the problem. Basketball isn't a game of perfection, especially the way these Panthers played in the postseason.
They made many mistakes, whether it was their 1-for-17 shooting from 3-point range, their 15 turnovers or their 27 personal fouls in the 73-55 loss to Wichita State in the NCAA West Region second round.
“We just simply weren't playing the right way from start to finish,” Dixon said.
What was troubling to watch wasn't that Pitt played poorly but rather that the Panthers played without passion. They were lackadaisical, lethargic and listless.
It's no wonder they lost.
They had nothing left.
Fatigue appeared to be a factor. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall believed his Shockers were quicker than Pitt, and “that's something no one talked a lot about.”
This makes me wonder whether it's not a fundamental issue — Dixon's principles of defense and rebounding form a solid foundation — but rather a mental one.
“It was our mental mistakes that led to turnovers: leaving our feet to pass, not doing jump-stops, things like that,” Pitt redshirt junior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “We expected pretty much everything they threw at us.”
The Panthers will tell you without fail that no one is better than Dixon and his staff at scouting opponents and preparing a game plan. It's what happens when their formula doesn't add up that causes problems.
Dixon places such a premium on the rebounding and turnover battles and holding opponents to fewer than 40 percent shooting that he makes it sound impossible to win without winning those statistical categories.
Worse yet, his players believe him.
The emphasis on pounding, physical play takes its toll on opponents during the regular season, as evidenced by Pitt's 24 victories.
But what toll does it take on the Panthers?
Pitt won the final four regular-season games, shooting a school- and Big East-record 71.7 percent at DePaul in the finale.
This was a season that saw Dixon adapt to his circumstances and do one of the best coaching jobs of his 10-year career.
This wasn't an immensely talented team, yet one that beat Georgetown by 28 points at Verizon Center, Syracuse by 10 at Petersen Events Center and didn't lose a regular-season game by more than 10 points.
The Panthers, however, had obvious flaws, whether it was 3-point shooting against Cincinnati, rebounding at Rutgers, free-throw shooting against Marquette, turnovers at Louisville or shot selection against Notre Dame. Every time one was exposed, it was quickly addressed and corrected.
Lacking a go-to scorer, Dixon relied instead on a deep bench to wear down opponents. But that created concern over playing time, and the Panthers started looking over their shoulders after every mistake to see whether they were about to get a quick hook.
That's why so much was made of Dixon telling his team to “just play basketball” against South Florida, seeing it as a sign of him loosening the reins.
Dixon quickly corrected everyone, insisting that it was simply a way to revive a stagnant offense that wasn't reversing the ball but staying too often on one side.
Maybe he should have let Pitt “just play basketball” a little bit against Wichita State.
Instead, Dixon yanked 7-foot freshman Steven Adams 1:15 into the game after he drew a foul. Adams sat out for six minutes. He finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes. And only two fouls.
That set a negative tone from the start, as did Pitt's failure to be ready to play their best on a big stage. The Panthers were perplexed by how they were outplayed, not because Wichita State did anything unexpected but rather because they had nothing left.
“It's our job to make them go play the way we play,” Patterson said. “I think we lost this game more than they beat us. They're a good team. We won't take that from them, but we've got a lot more to give.”
Especially at the end, when the Panthers play big games on a big stage but continue to come up short.