Ron Cook: Pitt's NCAA failures are painful for coach Jamie Dixon, too

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It's natural to focus on the big picture. This is the golden age of Pitt basketball, but its teams often have underachieved in the NCAA tournament. Pitt hasn't made it to a Final Four despite playing in the tournament 10 times in the previous 11 years. It has made it to just one Round of Eight. It has endured a number of hurtful defeats to lesser seeds.

Pitt can't run from that.

Coach Jamie Dixon won't run from any of it.

"Nobody is ever happy when they lose in the NCAA tournament, no matter when they lose," Dixon said. "You're never satisfied.

"I understand how people feel. I'm right there with them. I want to win a national championship. Until we do, no matter what we do, it's never going to be enough."

That's sad in a way.

If you are among those who devote all of your attention to the NCAA tournament, you are missing a great ride. You have missed a lot of wonderful fun, not just at Pitt's Petersen Events Center, but at venues all across the Big East Conference.

Pitt has been the best team in the best league in the country the past 12 years. It has the best overall winning percentage in the Big East during that time, the best winning percentage in conference games, the most league titles, the most Big East tournament wins and the most NCAA tournament appearances.

Pitt reached another big accomplishment Wednesday when it beat South Florida, 64-44. The win gave it 10 league wins for the 11th time in 12 seasons. It also almost certainly secured an NCAA tournament bid for the 11th time in 12 seasons. Pitt missed out on the NCAAs last year after a 10-year run.

"Ten wins is an amazing number in our conference," Dixon said. "Nobody else has done it. That says a lot. It says a lot about having good players. It says a lot about having good players ready to replace good players."

Syracuse has reached 10 Big East wins nine times during the same 12-year period. Connecticut still needs a league win this season to make it nine times in 12 years. Notre Dame has done it eight times. Louisville and Marquette, which didn't join the Big East until the 2005-06 season, have reached 10 conference wins seven times in eight years.

Pitt stands alone.

"You have to battle through ups and downs in this league," Dixon said. "This year probably exemplifies it as well as any year that we've had. We lost our first two games with new guys who had to figure it out. We had to find a way to get better. We're still trying to get better every day."

The win against South Florida doesn't rank among the best of Dixon's 260 wins in his 10 seasons as Pitt's head coach. Pitt trailed, 30-28, early in the second half to a team that came in with a 1-13 Big East record. It made sure there would be no big upset by going on a 16-0 run over the next seven minutes.

"This game might actually end up being good for us even though I wish we had played better," Dixon said. "We were better in the second half because we figured out we had to play better against their patience."

Pitt has regular-season games left against Villanova Sunday at home and at DePaul March 9 with a chance to get to 12 Big East wins for the eighth time in 12 seasons. After that is the conference tournament and, of course, the NCAAs.

Critics of Dixon and his program point to the greater NCAA tournament successes of other Big East programs the past 12 years. Connecticut went to three Final Fours and won national championships in 2004 and 2011. Syracuse won the national title in 2003. Georgetown, Villanova, West Virginia and Louisville all made it to the Final Four.

Dixon is proud that Pitt made it to four Rounds of 16 and to the Round of Eight in 2009 when it lost to Villanova, 78-76. "It's not like we haven't won a lot of NCAA tournament games," he said. "They don't give you byes into the Sweet Sixteen."

But Dixon also knows the critics are ready to point out Pitt's failures in the NCAAs. It has won 15 tournament games but has never beaten a higher-seeded opponent. It has had crushing defeats against lower-seeded teams. As a No. 3 seed in 2002, it lost to No. 10 Kent State. As a No. 5 in 2006, it lost to No. 13 Bradley. As a No. 3 in 2010, it lost to No. 6 Xavier. And, perhaps most painful, as a No. 1 in 2011, it lost to No. 8 Butler, 71-70, in its second tournament game. Butler went on to play in the national championship game, losing to Connecticut.

"I understand the disappointment," Dixon said. "We've set the bar pretty high around here. We want to get over it every season, but nobody does that."

Dixon and Pitt will get another shot at the NCAAs next month. He won't make any predictions. "It's still to be determined." But Pitt has beaten Big East leader and projected No. 3 NCAA tournament seed Georgetown by 28 points on the road. It also defeated Syracuse, a projected No. 4, by 10 at home. It's not as if it has no chance to make a deep run.

"It's like I tell our players," Dixon said. "We're all striving to be the best we can be. It's OK if other people have high expectations for us. They're not any higher than the expectations we have for ourselves."

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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