The Pitt basketball practices, going back to coach Ben Howland and continued by Jamie Dixon, are legendary for their toughness, the sheer brutality of the competition so intense that it makes the Big East Conference games seem easy by comparison.
At least that's the way it was when Pitt was winning league championships and going to NCAA tournaments and Dixon was winning national coach of the year awards.
But now? After Pitt lost its eighth game in a row just eight days ago? After it started 0-7 in Big East play to settle at the bottom of the standings?
"The practices are a lot harder," senior guard Ashton Gibbs said. "[Dixon] didn't panic. That's one thing he never does. But when we're losing, of course he's going to push us harder. There's more yelling. There's more vocal leadership from the coaches. It makes practice a lot tougher."
The results are starting to show.
Pitt outclassed No. 9 Georgetown in every way Saturday, winning, 72-60, rocking Petersen Events Center again and bringing back wonderful memories of the past decade when Pitt made the NCAA tournament each year. It was Pitt's second consecutive win after that eight-game losing streak and assured that its players will be feeling mighty good about themselves when they get off the team bus Monday night in Morgantown, W.Va., for a game against the rival Mountaineers.
"We were pretty good [Saturday]," Dixon said, clearly pleased. "We were pretty good Wednesday [in an 86-74 home win against Providence] ...
"Our guys have played their hearts out. They're practicing hard and they're playing hard. Everybody is in this thing."
Dixon mentioned forward Nasir Robinson, who made all nine of his shots against Georgetown and finished with 23 points and eight rebounds. "That kid has his knee drained at least twice a week. You can't say enough about him." Dixon also mentioned guard Travon Woodall, who had 10 assists against Georgetown to more than make up for his 1-for-7 shooting game. "He's playing through what could be a season-ending [abdominal] injury for a lot of guys."
Pitt's other players followed their lead.
Pitt hasn't been a tough team much of the season. It has been weak inside, especially after promising freshman Khem Birch quit the team in mid-December. But Pitt was the tougher of the two teams on the floor Saturday. It was tougher on defense, where it held Georgetown to 42.1 percent shooting. Georgetown's top two scorers -- guard Jason Clark and forward Hollis Thompson -- largely were ineffective, combining for 20 points on 8-of-21 shooting. Pitt also was tougher on the boards, where it outrebounded the much bigger Georgetown bunch, 35-23. Center Talib Zanna had 10 rebounds.
"We didn't let them push us around," Pitt forward Lamar Patterson said after turning in a strong performance with 18 points and seven assists. "We held our ground."
Added Robinson, "We're just trying to get back to playing Pitt basketball."
Two wins barely make a streak, but they are a nice start to a turnaround. Basketball people aren't surprised that Dixon has refused to allow his players to quit on the season despite the fact that 10-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances seems all but over. They knew the losing wouldn't break him or make him doubt what he was doing. They recognize Dixon as one of the top coaches in the country. His 229-69 record as his ninth season begins to wind down is the proof. He set the Division I record for most wins after six, seven and eight seasons.
The man can coach.
Eight consecutive losses don't change that.
"All I know is he's the most consistent human being that I've ever been around," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said earlier this month of Dixon, his boss when he was a Pitt assistant in the 2006-07 season. "He isn't trying any harder than he did last week or the week before. That man gives every ounce of focus and effort and energy that he has every day."
Dixon acknowledged his practices are louder, if not more intense.
"Every player is different and every team is different," he said. "When you have a young team like we do, I think you have to coach them more. You have to teach them that every possession is a battle. Every possession is important."
The players are getting the message.
This has a chance to be one of Dixon's best coaching jobs even if Pitt doesn't make the NCAA tournament. Don't try telling him that, though. He refuses to dwell on those eight consecutive losses, but he's not looking that far ahead, either.
"All we said before this game is we want to be 2-0," Dixon said. "That's all we're looking at, these last two games. That's our team."
The next goal is to be 3-0 with a win Monday night at West Virginia.
"We beat them down there last year," Dixon said. "We've played well there. I would expect us to play well again this time ...
"We're going to get better. I know we're going to get better because we got better this last week. We'll continue to get better because we're going to keep working hard."
You might say the coach expects it.
"No," Gibbs said, "he demands it."
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