Dixon won't let Panthers get Distracted

PITTSBURGH -- NCAA men's basketball tournament story lines are perfect for fans and media alike, but don't expect the coaches to get caught up in all the hoopla: At least they won't admit it.

Just ask University of Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon.

"You can create so many different story lines,'' Dixon said. "I don't know if the committee thinks about that. It just doesn't seem possible.''

Surely, nobody on NCAA Selection Committee knew that Dixon interviewed for the head coaching job at Wright State several years ago, but they certainly are aware that UCLA coach Ben Howland is Dixon's mentor. So, a Pitt-Bruins matchup in the Sweet Sixteen in the West Regional certainly would be special. Both teams have to make it that far, of course. If the Panthers beat Wright State, they likely would get Duke in the second round.

"It could be a lot of fun if that matchup happens,'' senior Levon Kendall said. "I think the Committee put us in the same (region) to look for that to happen as well, so I think it would be a lot of fun. And our guys would be looking forward to it, too, but we don't want to look too far ahead.

"And Duke, that's a program that almost any player would want to play with their history and their name. I think it would be a good matchup against them, and it would be a lot of fun, too. So, we don't want to look past Wright State, but those other possible matchups certainly jump out at you.''

But don't pencil Pitt and UCLA into the Sweet Sixteen on your bracket just yet. Duke might not be the NCAA heavyweight it's been in past years, but the Blue Devils have some tourney experience and a premier coach in Mike Kryzewski. And they certainly can't be taken likely.

So, the Panthers certainly could have an easier road to that elusive Elite Eight appearance, but they have to be pleased with a No. 3 seed. Sure, they could have been second, maybe, but they also could have been fourth with a much tougher opening opponent. Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the West, and former Pitt coach Ralph Willard has Holy Cross in the other half as well.

"It's going to be a difficult road for us, but we expect that in the NCAA Tournament,'' senior Aaron Gray said. "We can't look too far ahead, though, because when you do that you can get upset in an early round. So, we just have to stay focused on Wright State right now.''

Pitt has one first-round loss in recent history, two years ago against Pacific, but the matchup against the Raiders this year is more favorable. The Panthers have a decided size advantage, in particular with the 7-foot Gray in the post, and he must play better if Pitt wants to make a run in the tourney.

"Sure, I know a lot falls on my shoulders, but that's why I came back for this season,'' Gray said. "We're an experienced team, so I think we can handle the pressure. In fact, we're looking forward to it.

"That's how we look at it. ... We take great pride in ourselves and have a lot of confidence going into the NCAAs. A lot of people didn't even pick us to go to the championship game in the Big East Tournament.''

There was an interesting story line there as well, since Pitt's three opponents had wins against the Panthers down the stretch to stop them from winning the regular-season title. Pitt came up short in New York City as well, but that doesn't mean they should be counted out in the NCAAs.

Just ask the team's seniors. Gray, Kendall and Antonio Graves all believed that the Panthers could still go far in the tournament.

"With a No. 3 seed and in the bracket that we have, it gives us an opportunity to bounce right back after that tough loss,'' Graves said. "And we have to do that or we'll get bounced right out of the tournament.

"So, we're excited, and we're looking forward to it. We're not done yet, either. ... We've accomplished a lot this season, a good ranking, great RPI and a lot of wins. So, we just want to keep it rolling.''

And if all the great story lines play out in the NCAA Tournament, all the better for everyone involved.

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