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Starkey: All's well with Pitt ... basketball

| Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011

Amid the typhoon that engulfs its football program, Pitt's basketball program is the picture of calm, cool efficiency.

Just like always.

While the football program soon will hire its third coach in a month — kind of like Gary McGhee committing three fouls in one second two years ago at UConn — the basketball program has employed the same coach for eight years and the same system for 12.

And it continues to win big home games with numbing regularity.

The latest example was an 89-81 victory over a good Marquette squad Saturday at Petersen Events Center. Marquette did not commit a turnover until the final 11 minutes and finished the game with only two.

How do you lose a game with only two turnovers• Because the other team is really good. That's how.

"They have great poise, they're extremely well-coached, and they've been through the rigors," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said of Pitt. "They have an understanding of what this is all about."

You knew Pitt's shaky performance at Providence the other night wouldn't carry over. It almost never does with a Jamie Dixon team. Pitt took care of the ball better, cutting its turnovers from 23 to 10, and shot a season-best 60 percent.

The game was competitive, but nobody in his right mind doubted Pitt would find a way to win. Which is the exact opposite of how it feels watching an important Pitt football game.

Look at the ridiculous numbers. Pitt is now 143-11 at The Pete, 59-10 against conference opponents. It has an 18-game home winning streak and has won 49 of its past 50.

Dixon, meanwhile, improved to 97-41 in Big East play. His winning percentage of .703 is best in conference history, and you might recognize some of the coaches listed behind him.

John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun or Lou Carnesecca ring a bell• Granted, those guys worked way more games, but none approached a 70 percent clip in Big East play.

I wonder if people appreciate how hard it is to keep winning like this in such a vicious conference.

"You don't want to take it for granted," Dixon said. "I talked to our coaches about it afterward. I do expect to win. Our fans expect us to win. I guess it's better than the alternative. But it's not easy and shouldn't be taken for granted."

Next up, the unforgiving Big East schedule calls for Pitt to visit a talented Georgetown team that is dying for a win.

"We just had a good win, and now we play the No. 1 team in RPI on Wednesday," Dixon said. "(The .703 winning percentage) says a lot about our team because this conference has been pretty good the last couple of years, by far the best in the country."

All the classic symptoms of a Pitt victory were on display yesterday. Marquette came in shooting better than 50 percent and was held to 41.5. Pitt owned the boards (38-29) and distributed the ball expertly, recording 24 assists.

One play typified the Pitt approach to winning: Ashton Gibbs, who'd already hit four 3-pointers, passed up an open 10-footer in the lane late in the first half and kicked it to Brad Wanamaker for a 3-pointer.

A four-point lead suddenly became seven. Marquette never felt like a threat thereafter.

"We shoot the ball better, maybe, than any team we've had," Dixon said.

Williams raved about Pitt's patience, how it executed plays after dead balls and Marquette baskets and broke down his defense. Six Pitt players had at least eight points, and one who didn't — redshirt freshman Lamar Patterson — made his presence felt with five points, five rebounds, two assists and no turnovers.

Watch for Patterson, perhaps the best passer on the team, to continue his improvement. Most players get better under Dixon. We've come to expect as much.

But we shouldn't take it for granted.

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