The Search For Perfection

Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon, like most among his peers, is a perfectionist in every area.

Since Pittsburgh is 9-0 and ranked third nationally, one might believe that Dixon has been successful this season, but that's just not the case. Just ask senior forward Tyrell Biggs.

"With Coach Dixon, it's always defense,'' Biggs said. "We work on head fakes and ball screens, blitzing, things like that, but he's definitely a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect. At 99 percent, that's good, but he wants it to be 100 percent. That's better. But that's good.

"It gets us going and keeps us aggressive in practice. (And) I feel like with a couple more games, we'll be ready for the Big East. But practice, that really gets us ready for the Big East. Coach Dixon's killing us in practice, making sure we're working hard, and sometimes practice is harder than the games.''

Dixon is a coach that subscribes to the theory that a team plays how it practices, and that's where the Panthers' younger plays earn game time. And they can do that with aggressive defensive play. In the 29-point win against Vermont, a team Dixon still believes is better than the final score indicated, Pitt had some breakdowns on the defensive end.

So, that was the focus during practice this week. There also was some work on the Panthers' motion offense.

"I guess the area we need to improve is our weak-side defense,'' Dixon said. "And to me, we're almost to the point where our unselfishness has us forcing some passes. So, that's the biggest thing on the offensive end.

"We need to take the open shot if we get it after making some passes, so that's what we're working on.''

While Dixon contends that Pitt's non-conference schedule is among the toughest in the nation, always playing teams believed to be picked to win their respective conferences, it certainly hasn't been difficult for the Panthers. They have started the season 9-0 for the seventh straight year and have beaten teams by nearly 22 points per game on average.

Pitt, which plays host to Maryland-Baltimore County Saturday at 7 at the Petersen Events Center, has a strength of schedule ranking at No. 17. That fluctuates daily, but it's also padded by the team's upcoming Big East schedule.

The Panthers open Conference play Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. at Rutgers, but they have three more non-conference opponents remaining in UMBC, Siena (Dec. 17) and at Florida State (Dec. 21), clearly the most difficult matchup.

"You want to be healthy, win games and get better,'' Dixon said. "You want to play good people, and I think we've done that while we've gotten better. I think we've put ourselves in a good position. Our RPI is 3 (actually 4), and our strength of schedule is 27th (19). So, you can't have everything.

"But when a third of your conference is ranked teams, that takes out most of them. When we lose, the other ones become ranked. So, that's how it works. So, we've done all right so far, and I think we've improved. And our young guys have gotten better, and that's the most important things.''

Pitt sophomore guard Bradley Wanamaker has watched a lot of college basketball this season and not just video on the Panthers' upcoming opponent. He and his teammates get together to watch their Big East brethren any time they can, and Wanamaker believes Pitt has just played well against some tough competition.

"I believe some of the teams that we play are going to be NCAA Tournament teams,'' Wanamaker said. "So, I believe that we play good enough teams so we'll be ready for the Big East. I actually watch some of the other games sometimes ... we do that just to see what our upcoming opponents are doing so we can see what we'll have to do when we play against them.

"(And) I think the Big East teams are doing all right. We actually cheer them on when they play other teams. They represent the Big East. When we play each other, our feelings change, but most of the players on our team have friends on the other (Big East) teams. So, we want them to do well until they play us. (And) I believe they all feel the same way.''

That's probably not as safe a bet, but Biggs believes that by watching a lot of games and playing against teams with different styles the Panthers can hone their skills no matter how competitive the opposition is in a game.

"I think we've done all right, but we've really focused a lot on their different styles of play and trying to guard it the best way possible,'' Biggs said. "And I think we've done a good job so far. Our attitude is that we want to keep working hard. We know we're in a good position right now. We're (ranked) No. 3 in the country, and we're playing pretty well.

"Maybe we could click on a few things a little better at this early point in the season, but we'll keep working hard in practice and try to get better every week. We've missed a lot of open shots, but we're working on it, trying to shoot better than we have. And we're getting good shots. Maybe we're forcing it a little on offense, but ... we'll keep working on it.''

That's the only way to get closer to perfection.

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