Has it really been 331 days? To Pitt senior guard Jermaine Dixon, it seems like yesterday that Villanova bounced the Panthers out of the NCAA tournament, one hurtful step short of the Final Four. You probably remember the game. At the risk of ruining your breakfast, I'll remind you that Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds made a half-length-of-the-court dash to beat the buzzer with the layup that gave the Wildcats a 78-76 victory.
Along the way, Reynolds blew by Dixon, who was supposed to be guarding him.
"I saw him at [Big East Conference] media day in New York," Dixon said of Reynolds, who is my choice -- and Dixon's -- as the league's Player of the Year this season. "I told him I can't wait until we play them again. I said it's the one game I have circled on my schedule."
Well, it's here. Pitt will play No. 3 Villanova at high noon today at the Petersen Events Center. You think the place was throbbing for the West Virginia game the other night? You haven't seen anything yet.
"I'm pretty sure I'll be guarding him," Dixon said of Reynolds before the Pitt coaches put in the game plan. "If they don't tell me that, I'm going to ask them for it. I want that matchup."
I'm guessing Dixon didn't have to fight for it. He is Pitt's best perimeter defender. He's their best player, period.
"Pretty much every game we lost, he was either out or injured," coach Jamie Dixon said.
Jermaine Dixon wasn't such an important player last season. He was the fifth starter on that great 31-5 Pitt team with DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, who are in the NBA, and Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs, who are playing professionally overseas. That's why Reynolds' magnificent drive hurt him so much.
"I thought we had a team that could win the national championship," Jermaine Dixon said. "I felt like I lost the game and let those guys down."
The kid is being too hard on himself -- every Pitt player made mistakes during that 40 ferocious minutes of basketball -- but he did not have a good finish. He made a shot to give the Panthers a 67-63 lead with 3:24 left but, after a defensive stop, was picked clean by Villanova's Dwayne Anderson, who raced in for a layup and was fouled by Dixon, turning it into a three-point play.
"I made the bad worse," Dixon said. "He definitely got it from me clean. I was so mad at myself that I wanted to stop him. I should have just let him score."
Then, at the end, there was Reynolds' drive.
Dixon said there are nights he closes his eyes and still sees the back of Reynolds' No. 1 jersey flying up the court ahead of him.
"I was just hoping [teammate] Gil [Brown] would block his shot," Dixon said. "I was like, 'Please, Gil, save me.' He had his arms up, but he couldn't take a chance of fouling him. Reynolds made the shot over him. I was just sick. It was heartbreaking for me."
It didn't help much when Dixon got a telephone call soon after from his brother, Juan, a long-time NBA player.
"He said I shouldn't beat myself up too much, but that I lost the game with the mistakes that I made," Dixon said, fairly giggling at the memory of that brutal conversation. "I really didn't need to hear that at that point. But that's my brother. He's honest with me. He told me to use it as motivation."
So Dixon did.
Not just the Villanova game, but the entire NCAA tournament and even the Big East tournament, when Pitt was beaten by West Virginia in its first game at Madison Square Garden and he scored just five points.
"That was my first time ever in Madison Square," Dixon said, his awe very evident. "I was definitely amazed at the place."
As for the NCAAs, Dixon said, "I shot 4 of 22. That's not me. I'm better than that ...
"But it was just different in the tournament. The speed, the atmosphere, the intensity. Everything just picks up. I wish I could have picked up with it, but I didn't."
Instead of pouting, Dixon went to the gym in the summer and worked hard on his game. Maybe too hard. "Maybe that's why I broke my foot," he said.
The first time.
It broke again in the fall, forcing Dixon to miss Pitt's first eight games.
Now, he says, he's "better than 100 percent."
Just in time for Pitt's stretch run. It beat Marquette impressively on the road Thursday night and has won four games in a row.
For the Big East tournament. Dixon plans on helping Pitt stay around for more than one game this time.
For the NCAA tournament. "I'll definitely be more ready for that," he said. "Now, I know what it takes to win."
But first, there is Villanova and Scottie Reynolds.
"[He] was pretty cool when we talked," Dixon said. "He didn't rub it in or anything like that. He just laughed. He said he was looking forward to playing us again, too."
"I don't plan on letting him get by me this time."
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . 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. First Published February 21, 2010 5:00 AM