Entering Thursday's opening round of the NCAA Tournament, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon talked about his team's ability to not be satisfied with where it is, and how that's being used as a motivating factor.
Thursday against UNC-Asheville, Pitt held a 30-25 lead. They were winning, but they were prone to problems that have been bogging them down during the second-half of the season—poor shooting and turnovers. It wasn't because they were getting outplayed, they were beating themselves. Pitt shot 11-of-29 (37.9%) in the first half, missing 18 shots. In addition to that, they turned the ball over eight times. Sure, they were winning at the half, but they were not satisfied with just being up by five.
"I think just kind of opened it up," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. "I thought our defense was pretty good throughout, but our offense kind of slowed us down in the first half. Second half, making some shots and finishing some baskets around the rim were key."
Pitt responded by shooting 14-of-30 (46.7%) in the second half, which included 5-of-10 three-pointers—which helped open up their lead. In addition to outrebounding UNC-Asheville for the game 50-27—nearly a 2-to-1 ratio—Pitt cut its turnovers in half in the second half. It was only a matter of time before they would take control of the game. They just had to cut down on the missed shots and turnovers. In the second half, based on the idea they are a team not satisfied with where they're at, and based on the underlying fact that they were still able to rebound and play good defense throughout the game, they responded by opening up a big lead.
"We had a nice lead to start in the half and made some mistakes and turnovers to let them get back in it," Dixon added. "In the second half we pulled away with solid execution and rebounding and defense throughout."
Pitt moves on to play Butler, who had to come back from a 29-27 halftime deficit to beat Old Dominion 60-58 on a buzzer beater. The Bulldogs advanced to the national title game last year, and have won 10 in a row. Butler is also 14-3 in the month of March under head coach Brad Stevens.
They might be labeled as a mid-major team, but nothing about Butler's recent history in the NCAA Tournament or the style of basketball they play—which includes a tough defense—is mid-major.
"I know Coach Stevens very well," Dixon said. "I know (Butler guard Shelvin) Mack very well because I coached him with the USA Team (in 2009). So I know they're very good. They're a very physical team. Very physical, very aggressive on the ball, and we gotta be prepared for a physical defense from them. I watched them a couple times during the year. When I saw them; as physical a team that we'll play all year, probably the most physical team."
Quite a hefty compliment from a coach who sees physical opponents in almost every conference game during the Big East season.
Last week, after being eliminated in the first game of the Big East Tournament that they played in, guard Ashton Gibbs came out and made a promise that Pitt would do whatever it took to get to the Final Four. Thursday, moments after the win over UNC-Asheville, he backed those words up, but also talked about how the team believes they can get there by taking it game-by-game, and not looking too far ahead.
"We just gotta take one game at a time," Gibbs said Thursday. "I think if we do that we'll be fine; just keep playing our game. Keep playing unselfish, keep playing on the defensive end and let that carry on our offense. I think if we do that we'll be all right."
Even if Pitt gets off to a slow start shooting the ball, or turning the ball over, they have their defensive presence and their control on the boards to help get them through to a big win the way it did Thursday.
"It starts on the defensive end and we just gotta play defense," Gibbs said, referring to what it would take to defeat Butler. "Our coaches do great job of scouting the other team, so now it was just about executing once we get out on the court and just executing our defensive schemes and really rebounding the ball."