It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness – Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities
For Pitt basketball, it's been more a tale of two Jamie Dixons recently.
That's because in the stretch of nary seven days we've seen the best of times for Dixon and the worst of times too. We've seen his wisdom and his foolishness. Fortunately for Pitt fans (and Dixon) the best of times came out in the end.
But first, let's take a look at the worst of times.
The Dawg always hates pointing out just one scapegoat when analyzing any setback he is discussing in his column…unless of course it's someone in the Dawg House. The reason I hate it is because blaming just one person for a loss ignores the grand scale and complexity of sporting events. So many different people working together as a team are required for success…and failure. It goes beyond just one person, even one as important as the head coach of a basketball team.
But one fact can't be ignored. Although not entirely culpable for the loss at Georgetown last Sunday, Jamie Dixon certainly deserves a lion's share of the blame for it.
"How is that so, Dawg?!" some of you might be thinking.
Well for starters, how about blowing a nine point lead built up in the first half against the Hoyas by allowing roughly the same, ineffective line-up on the floor for almost the entire second half?
This included a marathon stretch of almost ten minutes without scoring a field goal from the floor. Yet, Dixon kept the same core players in at the most crucial times of Sunday's game. As Georgetown chipped away at the considerable lead the Pitt bench helped build up in the first half, the Panthers continued to play the same offensive sets with the same personnel.
Every quote you read from Dixon after the game has him blaming poor execution and shooting, especially right before the end of the first half when Georgetown cut Pitt's 15 point lead almost in half. He seems to think that Pitt should have been up by more when the second half started.
The Dawg would suggest that a nine point lead should have been more than enough.
For almost the entire second half, Georgetown chose to play match up zone and neutralize Aaron Gray down below. And yet, Dixon was not able to find the solution as the game slipped away, or until it was too late. By the time Dixon finally rotated in a few of those effective bench players, the Panthers were already down by ten points and with only a minute or so left in the game. Once Dixon finally found his winning combination, the Panthers almost came back and won the game.
I stated last week that this team has the talent to win anywhere and against anyone. I still believe it, sincerely. But unfortunately, they are going to have a hard time doing that if their head coach leaves his coaching mojo back in Pittsburgh whenever the Panthers go on the road.
But thankfully, Dixon does not seem to forget his self-made pattern for success this season when Pitt is at home. From the worst of times on Sunday came the best of times on Thursday night. And even more important, the best was saved for a dreaded rival on national TV.
All Pitt fans know how important Thursday's game was against West Virginia. The team and the head coach knew as well. The first game these two teams played against each other last year defined their season. West Virginia was flailing around, having even suffered a huge beat down at home by Villanova. Pitt was riding high in the polls, and although they had suffered a few less than stellar defeats (Bucknell, Georgetown, St. John's) they were ranked all season and still considered a national contender.
Both teams' fortunes changed that day when Kevin Pittsnogle's breakout game erased a seven point deficit to force overtime and led to an eventual must win for the Mountaineers. The Mountaineers, who had lost six of their previous seven games up to their win against Pitt, went on to have amazing runs in both the Big East (losing to Syracuse in the finals) and NCAA (Elite Eight loss in OT to Louisville) tournaments.
Pitt, in turn, lost six of its final eleven games, including first round exits in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments, and also fell out of the national polls, including even the start of this season.
With both teams being ranked going into this year's game for the first time in the long history of the rivalry, Pitt had a lot to prove. Not only were they reeling from a two game losing streak this year, they surely also must have had last year's monumental collapses against West Virginia in the back of their minds as well. The Panthers came out playing some of the toughest defense seen yet this year in college basketball. Despite harassing Pittsnogle and All American candidate Mike Gansey into horrible first half shooting performances, a plethora of Pitt turnovers allowed West Virginia to stay in it and tie the game before half time.
If the 2nd half of the Georgetown game was Dixon's age of foolishness so far this season, his 2nd half against West Virginia was absolutely his age of wisdom.
As skillfully as a master conductor leads his symphony in and out of movements, Dixon weaved his personnel in and out of the game at just the right tempo. Every time one player went cold, another came in and jump started the offense. When West Virginia denied Gray the ball, Ramon was on the floor to hit open threes. Sam Young came in at just the right time to score on key put backs that exploited the 1-3-1 zone and forced the Mountaineers to play honest on the wings and out on the three point line.
Even more impressive was the defensive effort. Pitt's constant rotation of fresh players into the game wore down West Virginia's stellar perimeter offense. Not only were the guards tenacious in shutting down the outside shooters, Pitt's forwards and even their center were glued to their men on the defensive end of the court as well. Despite all the long rebounds the Mountaineers produced due to so many missed long shots, Pitt still ruled the boards and finished with ten more rebounds than the Mountaineers, a Dixon team goal.
In the end, West Virginia head coach John Beilein just could not find a way to get his shooters open looks beyond the three point line against Dixon's defense, something the Mountaineers must have to succeed. If West Virginia tried to take it to the hoop, Gray and Kendall were there to deny them. Any offensive chances under the basket were negated by Pittsnogle's foul trouble.
It was pure genius on Dixon's part to recognize the best way to limit Pittsnogle on the offensive end: to force him to play hard defense against Gray on the other end of the court. Some West Virginia fans might be fooled into believing their Mountaineers just shot poorly. But the key to all that bad shooting was forcing Pittsnogle to play defense underneath and taking him out of his game on the offensive end. Not only were Pittsnogle's shots short from exhaustion, he also fouled out with the game on the line.
But Dixon's most impressive coaching decision of the night was to have the ball in Carl Krauser's hands at crunch time. Despite having a sub par game and only three points up to that moment, Krauser drove past Gansey and scored with only 39 seconds left on the game clock. Pitt was holding just a fragile three point lead at the time. Dixon was smart enough to know who wanted the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. Krauser's drive effectively won the game for the Panthers, and Dixon deserves all the credit for believing in his senior star, and having him out there with the game on the line no matter how bad of a night he was having.
It was definitely the best of times for Jamie Dixon…and all Pitt fans last week.
In the Dawg House: Again, no one this week stepped up and did something ridiculous enough to warrant being in the Dawg House. There are small, lingering matters that still irritate the Dawg, but they are not timely enough to be dealt with this week. The Dawg will have plenty of things to bark about in the upcoming weeks; therefore he will let sleeping dawgs lie for at least one week
So instead, I thought I would take a shot at predicting the results of Pitt's remaining basketball games leading up to the Big East Tournament.
Today, Cincinnati: The Bearcats are riding high after their win against Louisville, but so are the Panthers after West Virginia. Pitt wins a closer than expected shoot out 71-68.
Feb. 15, at Providence: The Friars are a lot better than their record shows, but they aren't good enough to win against the deep bench of the Panthers 57-52.
Feb. 18, at Marquette: Marquette looks for revenge at home where they only have lost once in Big East play. The Panthers will have a hard time winning two on the road, especially against a quality opponent like surging Marquette. The Golden Eagles take a thriller 66-64.
Feb. 25, Providence: The Panthers will look to avoid its second two game losing streak of the season, and the Friars at home are a perfect way to do it. Panthers win easy 62-49.
Feb. 27, at West Virginia: Payback time for the Panthers. West Virginia has only lost once at home and the Mountaineers will be gnashing their teeth to revenge their first Big East loss in 2006. Pittsnogle will not be held scoreless again. WVU takes it 69-65.
Mar. 3, Seton Hall: Seton Hall is putting together a nice little season to save Louis Orr's job. They are tenacious outside and play at a high pace. Pitt is just too deep for them. Plus the Panthers will be playing for an undefeated home record and a possible first round bye in the Big East Tournament. They certainly will not be looking past the Pirates. Panthers win 65-56.
There you have it fans; the Dawg is counting on the Panthers to finish 22-5 (11-5 in the Big East) and heading into the Big East Tournament as a 4 or 5 seed.
In the Dawg House: February 11, 2006 This page © Copyright 2006, Steve Gephart.