Gorman: Pitt should be happy with Dixon

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, March 7, 2014, 11:00 p.m.

To say Jamie Dixon might be the most defensive coach in college basketball is like saying Cliff Clavin might have been a mailman.

Dixon called timeout with 2.8 seconds remaining in regulation last Saturday at Notre Dame — Pitt won 85-81 in overtime — taking the ball out of his best player's hands to set up a play that saw James Robinson shoot an off-balance jumper.

He defended the decision by saying Pitt got a better look.

Ken Laird of TribLive Radio called it the worst answer to a question since the “Cheers” episode when Clavin was a contestant on “Jeopardy!”

Clavin was one answer shy of qualifying for the tournament of champions when Woody said there was no way he could lose, only to hear Norm warn: “You've gotta have faith, Woody.”

Cliff would respond to the answer of Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz and Lucille LeSueur with the infamous question: “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?”

And he bet $22,000 Big Ones!

This reminds me of the impossible pessimism of Pitt fans, who figure their favorite team never will fail to find a way to lose. In this Bizarro World of Pitt basketball, where the golden era now isn't good enough, they always are ready to blame the coach.

Never mind that Dixon has won 75 percent of his games, led the Panthers to nine NCAA Tournament appearances in 10 seasons, with two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight, and is a Scottie Reynolds shot shy of a Final Four.

Because of last-second losses at the hands of Reynolds and Barry Goheen and now, to a lesser extent, Tyler Ennis and Malcolm Brogdon, Pitt fans are conditioned to expect the worst. Which is why they have great concerns heading into the ACC regular-season finale Saturday at Clemson.

The Panthers (22-8, 10-7) need a victory — and maybe an ACC Tournament win — to clinch an NCAA at-large bid.

Now is when Pitt fans should count their blessings that they have the best coach in school history.

That's what Sporting News college basketball analyst Mike DeCourcy called Dixon earlier this week.

“I'm not going to say Jamie Dixon is the most talented because Ben Howland was special, but he's Pitt's greatest and most accomplished coach,” DeCourcy said. “To go after the best coach in the program's modern history is ludicrous.”

Yet after early exits in the NCAA tourney in three of the past four years, some fans have wondered whether Pitt would be better off with a coach who isn't such a control freak and didn't micromanage every pass of every play.

The knock on these Panthers is that they haven't beaten a ranked opponent in six tries, losing five games to teams now ranked in the top 15 by a combined 20 points.

So allow me to ask this bizarro question: Would you trade last-second losses to Cincinnati, Syracuse and Virginia for victories if you had to turn overtime wins against Miami, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame into losses?

Because as bad as Dixon's timeout against Notre Dame appeared, his decision to foul the Irish twice with 3-point leads in overtime proved bold and brilliant.

“It's silly to nitpick every decision a coach makes, but you can criticize it,” DeCourcy said. “It was a bad timeout.

“There's so many coaches that would have been too scared to do that (foul while up three). Jamie is the first one I've ever seen that had the guts to do it a second time.”

Dixon has done the hardest thing in sports: providing a program sustained success. Five of his NCAA tourney losses, including the past two, were to teams that reached the Final Four.

Pitt's only previous Final Four appearance came in 1941, when it had to win one game to get there. Other than in 2009, its only previous Elite Eight came in 1974, when it had to win two games.

“Pitt's program ceiling is probably being scraped,” DeCourcy said. “The best years were from 2003-11. If people want to get back to that, I'm with 'em.

“If you're telling me you should be making Final Fours at Pitt on anything other than a once-a-decade or every-other-decade basis, you're being fantastic.”

And to think Pitt might be better off under someone else, well, that just might put the program in jeopardy.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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