Cook: Pitt's a team to be proud of

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Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is here to tell you the view from where his Panthers sit this morning is spectacular.

"It's where you want to be," he said, grinning.

Alone atop the Big East Conference standings at the halfway point of the league season.

Think about that for a second.

Savor it.

The second half will be decidedly tougher for Pitt, beginning with its next two games on the road against Villanova tomorrow night and West Virginia Feb. 7. But that doesn't change the fact the Panthers, at 7-1 in conference play, have put themselves in position to win their sixth regular-season league title in their 25-year Big East history and get the top seed for the conference tournament and, of greater significance, a high seed for the NCAA tournament.

"I like the way we're playing," Dixon said.

Pitt was so good yesterday in a 72-46 home win against St. John's that Dixon found very little wrong with the performance.

Nothing, actually.

"When you hold them to 32 percent shooting, turn the ball over just seven times and outrebound them by 14 -- against a team that just beat Notre Dame and Syracuse -- you have to feel pretty good about it."

Dixon made one other dead-on observation.

"Our fans can be proud of this team."

The man is right.

Pitt is an easy team to like.

It starts with the players' unselfishness, which makes Dixon gush. Why not? That's been a trademark of his teams, along with tough defense and hard-nosed rebounding. Pitt added to its Division I-best assist-to-turnover ratio against St. John's with 23 assists and the seven turnovers.

"We've always been a good assist-to-turnover team," Dixon said. "But now, we're off the charts."

That unselfishness is a beautiful thing, no doubt. But not all unselfish teams are as successful as Pitt. The Panthers' only conference loss was to Marquette at home, where it almost never loses, on a day when it committed an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers and made just 23 of 36 free throws.

Hey, it happens in college basketball.

Pitt has just about everything you want in a team. An inside game with Aaron Gray and an outside game with 3-point shooters Antonio Graves, Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon. A superb slasher in the athletic Mike Cook. Balanced scoring with five players averaging between 9.2 and 14.7 points per game. Depth with a nine-man rotation; somehow Dixon keeps everybody happy. Experience by the boatload; of those nine players, all but Cook and Tyrell Biggs have played in NCAA tournament games.

What isn't there to like?

Truth is, we probably should appreciate Pitt more than we do.

Somewhere along the line, because of the program's enduring success under Dixon and, before him, Ben Howland, we've forgotten what accomplishments a 19-3 record and No. 9 ranking are in the parity-driven world of college basketball.

Dixon has noticed.

"When I got here [as Howland's assistant in 1999], they talked about our wins," he said. "Now, they talk about our very few losses."

Call it the curse of a top-shelf program. Every coach in America wishes he had to deal with it.

Sure, you can find fault with this Pitt team if you look hard enough.

The Big East is down this year. Traditional powers Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse and Villanova are nowhere to be seen in the rankings. Only Pitt, Marquette and Notre Dame are ranked and Notre Dame should fall out of the Top 25 when the polls are released tomorrow after somehow losing to St. John's last week.

Pitt is 0-3 against ranked teams.

Maybe Gray isn't as dominant as you'd like a 7-footer to be despite 10 double-doubles, the latest yesterday when he had 13 points and 10 rebounds. He was the Big East's preseason player of the year, but he might not be the MVP on his team. Fields would get this vote.

Maybe Pitt's other big man, 6-10 Levon Kendall, doesn't give you enough with his 5.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

And the free-throw shooting is worrisome. Pitt is making 66.3 percent, down from 69.3 percent last season. It shot a combined 65 percent in its losses to Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Marquette. Come NCAA tournament time, when the games are tight and the pressure is suffocating, opponents aren't going to forget that Gray was 2 of 8 from the line against Marquette.

But all of that is nitpicking, really.

This is the best team of the Dixon-Howland era.

For sure, it's good enough to win the Big East regular-season and tournament titles and maybe, just maybe, good enough to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

Take a bit of advice.

Enjoy the ride.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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