Gorman: Finally time for ACC to see Pitt style
Four years ago, Jamie Dixon was emphatic he wanted no part of conference realignment.
The Pitt coach was outspoken in December 2009 about his affection for the Big East and his disregard for rumblings that Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse were candidates to leave for the Big Ten.
“I can't see how moving from the best conference in college basketball history would be a good thing for anybody,” Dixon said. “Who's really going to improve their position from our conference? Nobody.”
Don't remember those comments? Neither does Dixon, who now shrugs them off as simply being a supportive member of his former league.
“The Big East isn't the Big East anymore,” Dixon said. “You do have to be adaptable. I was supportive of the conference we were in, but I knew at the same time that the conference wasn't going to be the same, and it hadn't remained the same. If things were all to stay the same, yeah, it would have been great to stay.”
As Pitt prepares for its inaugural men's basketball game in the ACC, it is as good a time as any to remind you of those words: The Big East isn't the Big East anymore.
And to paraphrase Dixon, the ACC is not what it once was. Driven by football and the necessity for BCS inclusion, the league has had to innovate, adapt and overcome the circumstances of modern-day, major-college sports.
Pitt isn't the only team entering a new world when it visits North Carolina State at noon Saturday.
“It's really the Big East now,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a Duke alumnus, said of the ACC. “Look at all the Big East teams in the league.”
It's true that, with Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse joining Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech — and Louisville on its way — that half of the ACC's membership next season will be composed of former Big East schools.
Which is why everyone inside and outside the conference is dismissive of talk that Pitt will have to adapt to an ACC style of play.
“There is no ‘ACC style' anymore,” Bilas said. “That's an antiquated notion of how things used to be.”
Yet what impresses me about Dixon is that he has adapted to a different style of play, even if it's not one attributed to the ACC.
Man-to-man defense and rebounding remain the core principles of his coaching foundation and what the Panthers must do to win.
But we're seeing a coach who expanded his rotation last season, one who is using zone defense on a much more frequent basis and is at least preaching playing faster.
Bilas disputes the last notion and points to KenPom.com statistics to prove it. The Panthers rank 312th out of 350 teams in pace, or possessions per game. Bilas noted that 80 percent of Pitt's possessions are out of half-court sets, so the Panthers are winning the same way they did in the past.
“If they're running more, they've kept it a secret,” Bilas said. “They're good. I know they're good. But this is not an up-tempo team.”
But it's one that appears to be better suited to play an up-tempo style than it was in the past, when the Panthers embraced their image as the bullies of the Big East.
Pitt outran Stanford, coached by former Duke star Johnny Dawkins, in a 21-point victory Nov. 26 in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.
Then the Panthers got pushed around by Cincinnati, a former Big East foe, in a 44-43 loss Dec. 17 at Madison Square Garden.
Believe it or not, this Pitt team is better suited for the new ACC than the old Big East. Even if everyone dismisses the difference in styles.
“I don't know how different the style of play is going to be. I think, at the end of the day, basketball is basketball,” Pitt sophomore point guard James Robinson said. “That's one of our goals coming in, just competing every night and knowing we've got to play our style of play and not really get caught up in whether we're playing Big East basketball against ACC basketball. We want to play Pitt basketball. I think, as a team, we're ready to do that.”