Kovacevic: Dixon's class sticks it to critics
Jamie Dixon has little use for scouting rankings of amateur basketball talent.
He has even less use for the fan blogs and message boards that fuss over the stuff.
But in the summer of 2010, Pitt's coach couldn't help himself. He had just received a verbal commitment from some unknown teenager from New Zealand, of all places, and Dixon was dying to see the reaction from his critics, those who long have accused him of failing to land elite recruits.
"Just this once, I had to look," he said with a grin the other day at Petersen Events Center. "Sure enough, all I saw was, 'What's Jamie doing?' and 'Who is this kid?' That's what everyone wanted to know."
Not so much anymore.
The New Zealander, of course, is Steven Adams. He's the 7-foot center who suddenly is a consensus top-10 recruit after a dominating performance in an international tournament this summer.
Now, they're calling Adams the greatest recruit in Pitt history, and they're fretting that he'll bolt for the NBA after his freshman year.
And now, with Adams and consensus top-50 guard James Robinson signing letters of intent a week ago, they're buzzing about the Panthers' recruiting class — just those two players — ranked among the nation's top eight by ESPN, CBS Sports and Rivals.com.
Sounds exciting, doesn't it?
With all due respect to the ninth-ranked team that has solid seniors in Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson, with all due respect to their predecessors who helped build the program, it's conceivable that the 2012-13 Panthers could be the school's most talented team ever.
But good luck getting Dixon to project anything past this afternoon's practice, especially after that defensive bomb Wednesday in the 86-76 loss to Long Beach State.
This is about as much as he'll say of 2012-13: "On paper, we're going to be good. We're still going to be considered a young team, by today's standards."
Younger, even, than the current team, which has six freshmen. One of those is 6-9 center Khem Birch, who had been considered Pitt's best recent recruit until Adams. Birch has looked raw so far, averaging less than a bucket per game, but his ceiling is high. Another is dynamic guard Cameron Wright, already seeing 14 minutes per game.
These kids know what's next.
"We definitely have a great recruiting class coming in, and it could be a great thing," Wright said. "But for Pitt fans and all of us on this team, that can't be our focus now."
Dixon has guided Pitt to at least one NCAA Tournament victory the past six years, a distinction no other school shares, and this team probably will be good enough to achieve that again.
But good enough isn't good enough anymore. Not after the mega-disappointment in touching No. 1 last season, only to get bounced from the Big East Tournament after one game, the NCAAs after two. More should be expected now.
The criticism of Dixon that followed those losses mostly was for not landing elite recruits. He doesn't back down from it.
"We have to be realistic about where our program was and where we'd like it to be," he said.
But the critics went too far when charging Dixon with not wanting such players, with preferring players who fit his defensive mold or who grow over time. The clamor was for more of those freshman-phenom types — think Carmelo Anthony — who could carry the Panthers to instant glory.
Thing is, Dixon wants those players, too, but on his terms. He sees Adams and Robinson as his kind of people.
"We've always believed that character is more important than the ranking assigned by a guy who has no interest in the person," Dixon said. "If there are issues with academics or integrity or NCAA allegations, we'll tend to go the other way. If that's a criticism, I'll happily accept it."
One criticism Dixon won't accept concerns the overall quality of the talent he's had.
"I've always thought that we've gotten very good players, and I'd think the wins, the rankings and the statistics are evidence of that."
No question, Dixon's 218-61 record is quite the testament to that. But the next step sure sounds a lot more enticing than another early exit.
The 2012-13 Panthers?
This could be Pitt's starting lineup next season:
Player, Position, Size, Class
Steven Adams, Center, 7-0/240, Freshman
Khem Birch, Forward, 6-9/220, Sophomore
Lamar Patterson, Forward, 6-5/221, Junior
Tray Woodall, Guard, 5-1 1⁄190, Senior
James Robinson, Guard, 6- 3⁄190, Freshman