Dixon's coaching stock still soaring

Unselfish system nets World under-19 gold medal

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"Jamie Dixon, you just led your USA basketball team to the world championship. What are you going to do next?"

"I'm going to Georgia, recruiting!"

OK, so maybe it isn't a Disney moment. But you know what? That's Dixon. The man takes his best shot at a challenge -- any challenge -- then moves on to the next. That's why he's in Augusta, Ga. -- "No golf for me," he said, fairly snickering -- looking at high school players at the Peach Jam, the best summer tournament in the country. The gold medal his USA under-19 team won Sunday night at the FIBA world championship in Auckland, New Zealand, is so old news. Now, it's all about keeping the pipeline of athletes flowing to Pitt, where he has won more games in his first six seasons than any coach in college basketball history.

"What else would I be doing?" Dixon asked when it was suggested to him that it seems a little extreme to fly Monday from New Zealand to Atlanta and then to Pittsburgh late this afternoon to watch more games tonight in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am Summer League.

Really, what else?

And you wonder why Dixon is one of the top coaches in America?

Correct that.

One of the top coaches in the world?

Dixon, making his international coaching debut, added to his burgeoning resume with the win at the FIBA tournament. His team used balanced scoring, stifling defense and powerful rebounding -- sound familiar? -- to go 9-0 and win the first gold medal by a USA Under-19 team since 1991. That didn't exactly ease the sting from Pitt's hurtful, two-point loss to Villanova, just one step short of the Final Four last season -- "I haven't forgotten any of our losses in my 10 years at Pitt, so I'm sure I'll never forget that one," Dixon said -- but it still felt mighty satisfying.

"Just being able to represent your country is a great thing," he said. "You don't realize what that's like until you actually do it."

No one could have anticipated the way the USA team blew through the competition, winning its games by an average of 22.2 points. Dixon took over as head coach just six weeks before the tournament when Davidson coach Bob McKillop had to pull out. Dixon didn't take long to establish himself with the players, running what the USA Basketball people said was the toughest training camp they had seen and stressing -- what else? -- teamwork, defense and rebounding. It reminded Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, the USA team's top point guard and best perimeter defender, of the Panthers' grueling practices at the Petersen Events Center.

"We went hard right from the jump, the very first practice," Gibbs said. "I was used to it, but you could see the other guys weren't. They were telling me, 'No more. We're finished with coach Dixon's practices.' But they got used to it, and it helped us in the end."

"We charted everything in those practices and kept track of what team won each drill and each game," Dixon said. "Everything was about winning. We wanted the players to get excited about winning and not just the all-star part of it. ...

"We half-joked with them that they could be playing pickup games with their buddies and not having to worry about playing defense. But they made the decision to play for their country, so that meant they had to make a commitment to playing defense. They were great about it. They all were unselfish and all sacrificed. Every guy said, 'Let's do this.' "

The USA team held its opponents to 66 points per game and 38.2 percent shooting and outrebounded them by more than seven rebounds a game. All 12 players played at least 13 minutes a game.

"We didn't have the best player in the tournament or maybe even the best 1-through-5 players," Dixon said. "But we definitely had the best 1-through-12. We were going to win with our depth."

It would have been nice to have more time to celebrate the gold medal, especially in New Zealand, where Dixon played professionally in the late 1980s and got his first taste of coaching by leading a team made up of players from the indigenous Maori people. But there were those recruits to see in Georgia. And Dixon already is thinking about his Pitt team next season. That could be his biggest challenge. He must replace four starters, including stars DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields, from the team that went 31-5 last season and made it to the NCAA tournament's round of eight.

Dixon isn't blinking.

"I remember the year we lost Brandin Knight, Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett and people thought it was the end of the world," he said. "Just two years ago, we lost three starters [Aaron Gray, Antonio Graves, Levon Kendall] and had two others [Mike Cook, Fields] go down with serious injuries early in the season. We had to replace five starters that year.

"We can replace players."

It's hard to doubt Dixon after his many Pitt accomplishments: the 163 wins, the six consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament at a school that went just once between 1992 and 2001, the Big East Conference regular-season title in '04 and the league tournament championship in '08.

"I'm smart enough to realize the importance of putting myself around good people," he said. "You do that, good things are going to happen."

It's nice to think Pitt will be able to keep Dixon, just 43, for the long haul. This latest feat will make him an even more attractive candidate every time one of college basketball's big jobs opens up. What's refreshing is that he seems to know he already has one of the sport's big jobs. It's instructive that he showed no apparent interest in the openings at Arizona and Southern California after last season despite being raised on the West Coast and fully knowing there are plenty more great players there, especially in Los Angeles, than in Western Pennsylvania.

"Obviously, there's a sense of loyalty I have to Pitt," Dixon said. "But I don't want that to take away from the fact that I recognize what a terrific place I'm at. I'm in a city that I love and my family loves. And I'm a part of a university that continues to grow and ascend in reputation."

The basketball team's success plays a big role.

Dixon's success.

Now, on top of everything, the man is a world champion.

Talk about ascending in reputation.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.


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