Ron Cook: Dixon, Panthers were unprepared for pressure put on them by Louisville

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Remember when Jamie Dixon flirted with Arizona State and Missouri last spring?

Times like this are why Pitt stepped up and paid him nearly $1 million a season to stay.

The man has some work to do.

In a 66-53 home loss to Louisville last night that was as stunning as it was lopsided, Pitt didn't look anything like the No. 1 team in the Big East Conference and the No. 7 team in The Associated Press poll. It looked slow. It looked unprepared. It looked awful.

That's not a good thing with the Big East and NCAA tournaments looming.

"Maybe we needed this," Pitt's Big East player of the year candidate Aaron Gray said, "to show us how good we aren't."

I think there's a positive in there somewhere, but I'm not sure.

Actually, the positive is this loss only counted as 1 in the standings. Pitt still holds first place in the Big East with a 10-2 record, although its grip doesn't seem nearly as strong as it did yesterday. Georgetown (9-2) and Marquette (8-3) are close behind, and each will get Pitt at home in the days ahead.

It's Dixon's responsibility to make sure this loss doesn't carry over and turn into something much more hurtful than just a bad night at the office. A Pitt team that has faced very little adversity this season -- in the Dixon era, really -- suddenly is facing a bunch. This loss was worse than the ones at Wisconsin and in Oklahoma City to Oklahoma State, even worse than the home loss to Marquette. Pitt was in those games. It never was in the game last night.

"I didn't recognize that team at the start," Dixon said.

Pitt didn't seem ready for Louisville's full-court pressure defense, which forced most of the Panthers' 16 first-half turnovers. I had Pitt for 17, but I'm not going to hold it against the official statistician. The turnovers came so fast it was hard to keep up.

On those rare occasions when Pitt did get the ball up court, it didn't have any answers for Louisville's 2-3 zone. The Cardinals were too quick for the Panthers, disrupting everything they tried to do offensively. It didn't help that Pitt -- normally a superb 3-point shooting team -- missed all nine of its 3s in the first half.

The big crowd at the Petersen Events Center was in a state of shock when Pitt limped to the locker room, down, 36-19.

Me, too.

None of us was used to this sort of thing. Pitt had been 78-7 in the building. This would become its worst loss at The Pete.

The fans took out their frustration by booing the referees as they left the court at halftime, as if they were responsible for the mess.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mark Cuban didn't take part from his front-row seat.

Instead, the Mt. Lebanon native-turned-billionaire, who has been known to give officials the business as the NBA Dallas Mavericks' owner, hustled into a rest room to change into an Oakland Zoo T-shirt. "Maybe this will change [Pitt's] luck," he said.

It didn't.

Yes, Pitt protected the ball better in the second half and cut down the turnovers. It also shot a little better, although not so much with the 3s, finishing 3 for 21 in that category.

But Pitt couldn't stop Louisville's offense.

That probably was most depressing.

A program known for its tough man-to-man defense was embarrassed by the more athletic Cardinals.

Again, it was a quickness issue.

If you really want something to worry about Pitt at tournament time, worry about that speed thing.

It wasn't just Gray, who has been known to struggle with mobile big men. Louisville's David Padgett and Derrick Caracter ate him up inside, but Gray was hardly the only Pitt player who was a step slow. Caracter blew by Levon Kendall for a layup. Terrence Williams flew past Levance Fields and Keith Benjamin on separate occasions. Brandon Jenkins left Fields and Antonio Graves in the dust on his way to an uncontested layups.

"If we play like that, we'll lose every game," Gray said.

Dixon, at first blush, said he wished Pitt didn't have to wait until Saturday for its next game, a non-conference matchup against Washington at the Petersen Events Center. "This is not a good feeling right now."

But upon further review, Dixon realized that four days of practice won't be such a bad thing. The Panthers will get to work on "their stuff," as he likes to call it.

"Practice is where you get better," Dixon said.

The guess here is the Panthers will show up ready to play Saturday.

That's why Pitt is paying him the big money, right?

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Louisville's David Padgett pulls in the ball against Pitt's Ronald Ramon, right, and Aaron Gray in the first half last night. Louisville won, 66-53.
Click photo for larger image.
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