Interview with the Pitt Panthers

Pittsburgh Head Coach Jamie Dixon, along with his players, Antonio Graves, Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall, answered questions from the media Wednesday at San Jose's HP Pavilion. Dixon, of course, is asked about his relationship with UCLA's Ben Howland, and the players talk about their match-up with the Bruins...

THE MODERATOR: We have head coach of University of Pittsburgh, Jamie Dixon.
COACH DIXON: Excited. We had a good practice today. We obviously went through our two-a-day out there, so we got our shooting done. Went through our stuff earlier.
Everybody seems to be healthy. Mike Cook is healthy. Sat out one day during the week as far as practice, was banged up in the last game, didn't get to finish at a hundred percent. Everybody else seems to be pretty good. We're obviously looking forward to this game on Thursday. I feel that we're as healthy as we've been all year long.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.

Q. Much has been said about your relationship with Ben. How is this week different for you than maybe the last however many years?
COACH DIXON: It's not too much different. We've been asked that every year the last three years, they've been in the tournament, we've been in those three years, too. I think it's inevitable, was going to happen. It hasn't changed at all. We've talked a couple times, not too much about the game, just about families, different things besides that.
More basketball, the whole basketball world, not so much the individual teams. We probably talk about other things more than our individual teams.

Q. Could you talk about Aaron Gray, the kind of season he's had. The Big East might not have been the numbers and performance that you wanted. What have you seen in him? Is he a potential difference-maker Thursday night?
COACH DIXON: He's played very well. I think actually even in the game that everybody seems to remember, I guess when it's the Big East Championship game, everybody is going to talk about that. He played very well, he just didn't finish some shots. He got the ball in the right position. Got the ball to get 13 shots, good shots, he did a lot of good things.
Like I said, I wasn't too worried, too concerned. If he had gotten the ball in bad shots or taken the shots in bad situations, that would have been my concern. That was my thinking coming out of that game, and it's held true to form in the NCAA tournament. I mean, we've gotten the ball to him in the right place, he's played well. Sometimes he's going to score a little more. Last game he had good numbers. He also had five assists. In my mind, five assists for him is almost like eight, nine assists to a point guard because his passing is oftentimes not going to get an assist, he's going to hit somebody that's going to hit another guy for an assist.
I think he's played very well. The one game, I like what he did even though the result didn't turn out to be what we had hoped.

Q. When you got into coaching, did you have a sense your teams would be known for this defensive style?
COACH DIXON: When I got into coaching, yeah, I mean, I've always felt that to win, to be successful, if I wanted to win, if I wanted to be around good programs, had you to defend and guard. That's what we did in college. I played at TCU; we were successful there. We had a good defensive team. That's what we were known for. I've always had that belief that defense is going to be what wins championships. We won two Southwest Conference Championships at TCU. It was based on our defense.
That was a match-up zone defense. That's what we played. But now that was a different time, before the three-point line, at least before it was used as much as it is now. So it just continued with that belief that defense wins games, wins championships, and that's what we've continued to do ever since I went into coaching, which wasn't too far after that.

Q. To revisit Aaron for a second, how would you assess his growth throughout his career there, and maybe are there some areas where he's surprised you or hasn't lived up to what you quite hoped?
COACH DIXON: He's just improved every year. Going into this year, it may not show as much in the numbers this year as far as improvement. He's improved in a lot of years. This year he's a better passer, better decision maker in the post. That shows in the numbers. The turnovers are way down from what he had last year. The assists are a little bit higher. Again, he's improved a lot in decision making, that area.
It's just been constant. I always use the term of "just more of the same," where he had to get in better shape, he had to get stronger around the basket, do a better job of keeping the ball up, all those things. It wasn't going to be an overnight occurrence, it was going to be something that continued week after week, year after year, continued to improve. I don't know if we set on one thing to really focus on, but just continuing to improve and do more of the same.
I think the one thing, we're seeing the improvement here lately, is the free-throw shooting. I think he's improved in that area. We've worked on it some. He has a lot more confidence. He went into a little streak where he injured his hand where he didn't shoot it very well. Lately he's been shooting it well again. He's got a very good touch. He's going to become a very good shooter at the next level. I think people are going to be very surprised when they see him play in the NBA, more so he's going to become a very good outside shooter.

Q. When you got the job after Ben left, there was apparently a certain amount of local skepticism giving the job to an assistant, how did you deal with that initially?
COACH DIXON: I think with anybody that gets a job, even when Ben was hired at UCLA, it was the same kind of skepticism. There always is going to be some people -- somebody has to write that article, somebody has to write the other article. That's just how it is.
It's part of the game. It's just something you deal with. Maybe there was some skepticism, but there was certainly far more people that wanted me to get the job. Those are the people that I reflected on and thought about and worked for. That was my whole basis.
I didn't use the so-called skepticism, I don't even know who they were, I didn't use that as a motivational tool. I have enough motivation within me and for the people that support me. That's my motivation.

Q. Does the fact that you and Ben know each other's styles so well, does that have an impact on the how game is placed?
COACH DIXON: I don't think so. I think it will be a normal game. The kids are playing up and down, at speeds, they're playing their game. I think we're so much -- I mean, with our preparation, I think with Ben's preparation, what they do at UCLA, we're so familiar with every team we play, the number of tapes, the number of things we go through, this is not that much different than what we've seen. I mean, Connecticut, our guys could tell you every Connecticut play they run. You could go in there right now and ask them, they could go through it. They could do a walk-through through the Connecticut plays. That's just the familiarity that we have with teams in our conference especially.
I don't think there's going to be as much. I know there's going to be a lot made of it. They're used to knowing, I think, opponent's plays. I know our guys are used to knowing sets they're doing, things that they do.

Q. Ben twice in his life has recruited you, first time as a player, second time as an assistant. I think he's talked a lot about how hard it was to get you back. Could you talk about that process, maybe compare the first time to the second time around.
COACH DIXON: The first time, I was just saying, was at Santa Barbara. I was more recruiting them than he was recruiting me. I was a late-bloomer. I didn't play much my junior year. I was a late-bloomer. Senior year I applied to Santa Barbara, I had been accepted just as a student. At the time I didn't think when I applied, I didn't know a basketball scholarship was going to be on the horizon. I applied there, it was a school I wanted to go to if I was just going to go to school.
I had a good senior year, started getting recruited by a lot of people. Santa Barbara signed a number of guys early. We since lost it, I guess, my mom had had a letter that said from Ben, and it said, "We are sorry we can't take you, you don't have enough scholarships." They used to bring that out and show that to Ben. But we've since lost that letter. It was a letter there we had.
Again, there was a number of guys, I was a late-bloomer, late developer, there's a lot of people that had a lot of questions about what I could do, how I could play. We do joke about it. They were struggling at the time. Maybe it was okay that I went off somewhere else.
The other thing, we were together obviously as assistants. He got me on with Coach Pimm. I knew Ben playing overseas, and playing CBA. I stayed in touch. I knew I was going to get in coaching. I stayed in touch with a number of coaches, people I would like to be working in their program. That's how that came with Santa Barbara. That opened up. Ben got me on there, help with Jerry Pimm in getting us on there. We were both assistants at Santa Barbara.
The other thing was going out to Pittsburgh?

Q. Right.
COACH DIXON: What he talks about is he thinks the biggest recruiting thing was selling my wife. We had just become engaged. She was from Hawaii. I just moved back to Hawaii. He sold my wife on moving to Pittsburgh. She's from Hawaii. That was what he says his greatest recruiting coup in recruiting. That was the thing. I was at Hawaii. I was very comfortable there. I really loved the situation. Coach Wallace, who was really as much -- I worked for him two different times. I've learned so much from Coach Wallace. A great coach. I really enjoyed my stay there, my time there. I was very comfortable. Then I was -- the Northern Arizona job opened up at the same time. Hawaii, I just got there. Obviously the Pittsburgh situation. I had to make that decision.
I don't know how -- as I said, most people -- coaches told me, "You got to take a head job when you have an opportunity at a head job." For some reason, I felt Pittsburgh was going to be a good place for me. I don't know. Probably went against what most people would think in the coaching profession. It just felt like the right thing to do. It was a challenge that I thought surpassed what the other two challenges were. I say, if we can get that done, we can do it anywhere. That was the challenge, I guess.
A long story long, I guess (smiling).

Q. Do you imagine your relationship with Ben might be any different if you actually played for him?
COACH DIXON: In the early years probably because they didn't win too much the first couple of years (smiling). I always think that guys that get into coaching, oftentimes you come from winning programs, have had success, enjoyment when they're playing. Oftentimes that's the case. But if we played -- I don't know. I never actually have thought about that. I guess when I didn't end up at Santa Barbara, I moved on, ended up at TCU. We had a great run there. So I never really gave it much thought.
I think we still would have been -- you know, our interests are so similar, we have very few, basketball and family are the only two interests we have I think. I think those generally bring people together, especially coaches. So I think that similarity -- those similarities would have probably kept us the same. He likes fishing, too. I don't like fishing. I guess that's the only difference (laughter).

Q. Do you think all the talk about you and Ben has been sort of overblown this week?
COACH DIXON: You knew it was coming, so it wasn't -- I guess if you know it's coming, it's not overblown.
It is what it is. It's probably a nice story. I think the point I like to make is it's obvious we're very close, but our families are even closer. I mean, his wife and my wife, Kim and Jacqueline, talk probably as much or more than we talk. Meredith and Adam, they've Joan, Jack and Shannon. I think that's to me more the story. It's more about a friendship more so than a basketball business relationship. I think it's a family friendship, two guys that have been there through some difficult times in recent years between the both of us. We've both been there for each other, families, as well. I think that's more to me the story than maybe the familiarity with the programs. Again, that's five years ago he was at Pitt. That's a big difference.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.
COACH DIXON: Thank you, guys.
THE MODERATOR: We have Antonio Graves, Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall. Questions, please.

Q. Aaron and Levon, can you talk about your height advantage, how important it's going to be to exploit that in this game.
LEVON KENDALL: I think it's big. I think it's one of the places we have an advantage. Obviously to have I think -- their starting big guys are pretty solid. I think that's something we're going to look to take advantage of.
But I think that's common. I think every game we look to get the ball inside, play out of that. I don't think our strategy's going to change too much. Obviously I think they're going to be focusing in a bit on that defensively, stopping Arron, trying to keep the ball out of his hands.
Nothing new, but I think that's going to be something important for us, make sure we're getting on the rebounds, taking advantage of those matchups.
AARON GRAY: Just like he said, you know, we like to play inside-out, get the ball inside, work off of that. Their guys, lack a little bit in height, they have a lot of athleticism and they play very hard.
Definitely not anyone that we are going to look over or think it's a huge disadvantage.

Q. Aaron, I was reading your bio, it said you were born in California, is that correct?
AARON GRAY: Yes.

Q. Can you explain how it was you're family ended up moving east.
AARON GRAY: Actually, my dad's job -- I've kind of lived throughout the country. I was born here in California, then to Texas, to Florida for a few years, most of my life in Pennsylvania. Basically just through his company.

Q. What kind of work does he do?
AARON GRAY: He's an HR manager for a branch company of ITT Industries. Have a lot of family out here, though. We'll have a lot of support for the game.

Q. How old were you when you left California?
AARON GRAY: Two years old. Nothing I could even remember about.

Q. Levon, can you talk about how Ben and Jamie are differently personally and as a coach. What was your reaction when Jamie got hired?
LEVON KENDALL: Well, I think their personalities are a little different. I think Coach Howland is a little more aggressive, a little bit more louder guy. I think Dixon is a little bit more laid back. As far as coaching styles, they're pretty similar. That's one of the things, their principles are a lot the same. I think when Jamie was hired after Howland left, I think a lot of the guys were happy with that. Not a lot changed as far as our practice or our preparation or anything like that.
Made the transition really smooth. I think that was good. I think Howland recruited players to fit that system. It made it a lot quicker I think just for the players as well as the coaching staff to just sort of continue on what Howland had started.
Obviously they're different people. There's some smaller differences. I think as far as the coaching principles and stuff like that, there's a lot of similarities.

Q. Aaron, when a coach that recruits you leaves, what is that process like? What is it going to be like going against Coach Howland?
AARON GRAY: You know, it was a little bit of a mind-boggling time, waiting to see who the University of Pittsburgh would rename as a coach, with Howland leaving. But, you know, I was very happy when they hired Coach Dixon. I had spoken to a lot of the current Pittsburgh players at the time. They were really lobbying hard for Coach Dixon. Besides Coach Howland, he was my main recruiter.
When they hired Coach Dixon, I was right on board. It was a good situation for me. Obviously, it's worked out pretty well.
You know, it's going to be exciting. When Coach Howland left, he called me. We had a long conversation. He told me why he made the decision that he did. The only thing I could do was wish him luck. I understood. It was a great opportunity for him. Obviously he's made the best of it.
At the same time, coming out here, it's kind of going to be a little bit interesting when you're running up and down the court. One end you see Coach Dixon, then you run down the other end, see Coach Howland. We do kind of the same stuff. You figure they're going to be yelling at their players about the same thing. It should be a fun game to not only play in but for you guys to see.

Q. Based on what you've seen of UCLA on tape, is there any team you've played previously that is comparable to them?
ANTONIO GRAVES: Not really. We played a lot of great teams. I think this team by far is going to be a good challenge for us. It's going to come down to the players, actually being out there on the court, just see how things play out. That's one of the things about this game. Like they said, we do a lot of the same things. It's just going to come down to just doing the little things, the rebounding, getting stops on defense, stopping guys. That's what's going to determine the outcome of the game.
AARON GRAY: Yeah, they're definitely a defense-minded team first before offense. But, like Antonio said, there's a lot of similarities between us and them. We run a lot of the same plays. We had a lot of the same names for the same plays. It's really going to come down to execution of those plays. It's going to come down to, like Antonio said, being able to stop the other team. Like he also said, the little things: rebounding, turnovers, sharing the ball, being unselfish, all those characteristics we're very confident in.
LEVON KENDALL: Yeah, I'm not sure, I can't think of any team off the top of my head that has three guards that are as strong as theirs. I don't think there's many teams in the country that are as consistent as they are in defense. I know that's one of the big things that Coach Howland and both Coach Dixon preach is, just being consistent. You're not going to see them switch things up a ton or go to some fancy zone to get you out of your thing. They stick with their principles, just sort of grind it out, which is similar to how we play.
I can't think of a team that we've played this year that has a similar style.

Q. West Coast basketball in general, PAC-10 specifically, always has had a reputation of being soft when it comes to basketball. From a players' perspective, coming from the Big East, what is the reputation of the PAC-10?
LEVON KENDALL: I'm not sure. I think, us guys on the East Coast, we don't get much chance to play against PAC-10 teams. We played Washington this year obviously. We got a bit of that. I didn't think that they were any softer or more run and gun than any of the teams in the Big East. Maybe a little more free-flowing. They certainly have a couple big strong guys. Obviously UCLA, you know, seems to be at the front of changing the image of the PAC-10, as far as I can tell, as far as needing guys that are physical and can rebound.
Aside from the stereotype, we don't get too much of a real sense of it.
AARON GRAY: Like he said, I think it's definitely changing. I think a few years ago you really could have said you're not going to see a game that's not in the 80s or 90s, really like to push the ball, get the ball in transition, just kind of go with it.
With the addition of Coach Howland at UCLA, Washington State is having a lot of success, just us from experience playing the University of Washington, they're the same caliber as the best teams that we've played in the Big East, the best teams we played in the nation.
I definitely think they're one of the top conferences. At one point during the season they said that the PAC-10 was the best conference. Definitely not a conference that should be overlooked.
ANTONIO GRAVES: I generally like to think that the physicality of the game seems to rely on how the refs may call the game. Sometimes they allow us to get physical; sometimes they like to call a lot of fouls early to set the tone of the game.
To me, I can't really tell based off of us playing non-conference and in-conference games how physical it is because to me it's all the same: it's going to be based on how the refs set the tone of the game.

Q. You have talked a little bit today about how Coach Dixon and Coach Howland, their systems are so similar. Since Coach Howland departed, has Coach Dixon employed some new things, revolutionized it a little bit, put his own imprint on the style, or is he still pretty much using the same stuff that you were using when Howland was coach?
LEVON KENDALL: Well, I was the only one that was around when Howland was here. I don't know if these guys have too much of a sense of it.
I think one of the biggest things, Dixon, his approach to teaching it is maybe a little bit different. I think they're different personalities. I think just the way he sort of implemented that is maybe a little bit different than Howland. I mean, obviously every coach has their own little subtleties, little reads and stuff like that. Coach Dixon has incredible basketball smarts, so obviously he's adapting little things, adjusting, getting certain points across that Howland wasn't or that are different. That was quite a while ago, so I can't give you any exact things. Obviously every person is different, so their principles are the same, but there's always little things that change and little things that make adjustments and stuff like that.

Q. The zone defense, is that something that Howland did, too?
LEVON KENDALL: Occasionally. That was something we always practiced. It's the same this year. I think every year that I've been at Pitt, we practice zone almost every day in practice. You maybe see it one out of every 10 games. That was the case I think with Howland, as well. It was sort of last resort, something that you obviously have to practice against because teams are going to throw it at you from time to time.
We're usually prepared to play it in a game against somebody else, as well. As far as I can remember, Howland did that, as well.

Q. Antonio, I assume you'll be guarding Afflalo. What is your sense of him and the fact that he's had a shooting slump, does that affect anything you do?
ANTONIO GRAVES: I actually didn't know he was in a shooting slump. I just like to approach each game the same way. He's their leading scorer, I think. He has a size advantage over me and whatnot. I look to pressure him a little more. Of course, the help of my teammates -- in every game, when I've guarded their best player, the team's best player, it's been a huge complement to my defense. I can't do it without them. We're going to take the same approach. They have a lot of offensive strength, especially on the perimeter, that we're going to have to, you know, take, you know, a lot of concern, just try to work it like that.

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