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Kovacevic: Pitt, Dixon must keep faith

| Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

Jamie Dixon wants to beat Louisville in the worst way. And I mean the worst way: Pitt will limp onto its court Saturday night, before a packed Pete and an ESPN audience, with an unfathomable 0-6 record in the Big East.

If that spotlight isn't blinding enough, ESPN is anchoring its "College GameDay" program — fancy set, famous commentators, Erin Andrews and all — from Oakland all day.

Nice. Anyone ever torment DePaul like this?

"We've earned it," Dixon told reporters Thursday after practice. "They pick elite programs for this, and this program's earned it. We've haven't played as well as we want this season. We won't hide from that. But we've earned this."

That comes across as defiant, but it was terribly transparent how troubled Dixon is by the worst stretch of his career. Keeping a stiff upper lip is what a good coach does when things are down.

So, too, is keeping the faith.

It's worth a reminder: This man won 216 games in his first eight seasons, a mark no one else in NCAA Division I history can match. His .783 winning percentage was third-best among active coaches, better than Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Jim Boeheim and, yes, his counterpart Saturday night, Rick Pitino.

But even the best can learn from adversity, and Dixon deserves an A+ for his handling of two tough scenarios in particular this season.

Let's start with Ashton Gibbs.

He was the Panthers' top scorer in his sophomore and junior seasons, after which he flirted with entering the NBA draft. Good thing he didn't. The NBA has little use for 6-foot-2 shooting guards. Most anyone that size either becomes a point guard or buys a one-way ticket to Turkey.

Think about how convenient it would have been for Dixon to keep Gibbs at shooting guard.

He didn't. Instead, Dixon did right by Gibbs and tried to craft him into a real point guard. Not so much for the NBA but, as Dixon described it to me Thursday, "Because it was going to make Ashton the best player possible. Because he can do all those things."

So, even before point guard Tray Woodall went down to injury, the coaches worked with Gibbs on shooting off the dribble, on penetrating, on finding the open man. If it had worked out, it would have benefited all concerned, now and in the future.

But it hasn't. In part because of nagging injuries, Gibbs' shooting percentage has plummeted from .468 to .383, his 3-point percentage from .490 to .341. It wasn't until Dixon finally moved him back to shooting guard last week — freshman Isaiah Epps was inserted at point guard in a desperation move — that Gibbs popped a career-high 29 points at Marquette. That was no coincidence.

Neither was it coincidence that the whole Pitt team looked better that night and in the competitive loss at No. 1 Syracuse that followed.

Would this have been a better team with Gibbs at shooting guard all along?

No doubt. But Dixon needs to be able to show future elite recruits that he'll do right by them.

That tidily takes us back to the other scenarios.

When Khem Birch, Pitt's most-celebrated recruit in years, left the team in mid-December, he complained about — among other nonsense — a lack of playing time. It was wholly unfounded. Birch was averaging about 14 minutes, and he started six of his 10 games with the Panthers, even though he'd played well in just two of them. If he'd stayed, he'd be a 30-minute mainstay by now.

Dixon actually bent far more than he had with most freshmen, but he also shouldn't have to undo a decade's worth of principles for one whiny kid. Birch needed to earn his minutes, or Dixon would lose the rest of his roster.

Would the current team have benefited from Birch in the paint?

No doubt. But at what cost?

I asked Dixon about his commitment to consistency, and he replied, with a slight smile, "You know, something I feel we've done well over the years is coaching our guys who redshirt. Our fans won't see how they're doing, but we do. We have the ability to put in a system for our guys, to get them ready. And we know that they're ready. We've always taken pride in that. It's part of who we are."

It's the identity.

This season's been different, obviously, with Pitt putting as many freshmen on the floor as any major program in the country. But it just might be that, by next winter, Pitt will benefit from all these players gaining Big East experience, coinciding with the arrival of 7-foot New Zealand phenom Steven Adams.

He'd better be prepared to earn his minutes.

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