Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is, at times, both defensive and realistic. He loathes the suggestion that his teams have underachieved in the NCAA tournament. "We've won a lot of games in the tournament. Only five teams have been to more Sweet 16s than we have. They don't give you byes into the Sweet 16." But Dixon also knows Pitt has to win a national championship to be regarded as a true college basketball power. "That's what separates you as a program. No question. You remember the teams that win national championships. We haven't done that."
Pitt didn't make it to a Final Four despite going to 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments before sitting out a year ago. It made it to just one Final Eight, losing brutally to Villanova, 78-76, in 2009. Pitt has been upset by lower seeds a number of times, notably as a No. 3 by No. 10 Kent State in 2002, as a No. 5 by No. 13 Bradley in 2006 and, most painfully, as a No. 1 by No. 8 Butler, 71-70, in 2011. Butler went on to play in the national championship.
Here's a fact that must haunt Dixon:
Pitt has never beaten a higher seed in this golden age of Pitt basketball.
Is it just me or are a lot of Pitt fans afraid to buy into their team this week as it heads back to the NCAAs?
Pitt, the No. 8 seed in the West Region, will play No. 9 Wichita State Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City, with the winner almost certainly to play Saturday against No. 1 Gonzaga.
If you keep putting your heart out there and Pitt keeps stomping on it, you're probably going to be reluctant to put it out there again.
"I understand the disappointment," Dixon said. "Anytime we lose, we're disappointed, too. Whenever you lose, in the NCAA tournament or in the regular season, nothing good comes out of it. There's always something missing in a loss."
There's only one way to silence the critics.
But is that enough?
"It's never enough," Dixon said. "When we went to the Sweet 16, we heard we didn't make it to the Elite Eight. When we did that, it was that we didn't make it to the Final Four. If we get to a Final Four, we'll have to win a national championship."
Certainly, if Pitt wins a title, it will be enough.
Or maybe not.
"Then, you have to win it again the next year," Dixon said, grinning. "Ask Kentucky. Ask [John] Calipari."
Calipari and Kentucky won the national championship a year ago but didn't make the NCAA tournament this year. They will play at, almost unbelievably, Robert Morris tonight in what should be a surreal game in the NIT. This is just a guess, but the Kentucky fans probably aren't thrilled.
"We as coaches understand that," Dixon said.
Maybe it's a good thing that the expectations are so low for this Pitt team outside of its Petersen Events Center locker room. The general consensus seems to be that Pitt will be fortunate if it beats Wichita State. Any win after that will be a bonus. How can that be a bad thing? Pitt has failed so often in the NCAAs as a favorite. Maybe this will be the year it overachieves. There is so much parity in the college game. There is no great team.
What an awesome opportunity Pitt has. If it beats Wichita State, it will get to play a Gonzaga team that is No. 1 in the final Associated Press regular-season poll, assuming Gonzaga beats No. 16 Southern Thursday. Every team would love to take its shot against the best team.
Pitt has received at least a little unexpected support going into the tournament. The betting site Bovada came out with interesting odds Monday. Pitt is a 33-to-1 shot to win the national championship. That's better odds than those received by No. 3 seed Marquette, No. 4 Kansas State, all of the No. 5s but Wisconsin and all of the No. 6s and 7s.
Pitt did win 11 of its final 14 Big East Conference regular-season games to finish in fourth place in the powerful league. It also played a strong second half Thursday in its 62-59 loss to Syracuse in its first conference tournament game at Madison Square Garden. The problem was that it was bad defensively against Syracuse in the first half when it fell behind, 40-27. That loss, combined with a ridiculously weak non-conference schedule, dropped Pitt in the seeding.
"We've gotten better as a team," Dixon said. "We're doing some good things. Our defensive numbers are good. Our rebounding numbers are good. Our offensive numbers are good, although they could be better ...
"I thought we played hard against Syracuse. I don't think we played great, but we played hard. We outscored them by 10 in the second half. We outrebounded them by 16, which is an unbelievable number.
"But we have to play that way for 40 minutes. You can't beat a good team with the kind of first half we had. We know that."
If Dixon is feeling any pressure entering this NCAA tournament, he isn't showing it. He might have seethed privately about the No. 8 seed -- "We didn't have any really bad losses," he had said before the field was announced -- but he was calm and collected publicly.
"It is what it is," Dixon said, dialing up a favorite Bill Cowherism.
"It doesn't matter who you play or where you play. You're going to play a good team. We're playing a good Wichita State team."
Pitt's NCAA tournament past -- its successes and its disappointments -- also is irrelevant, Dixon said.
"It's all about what we do Thursday."
That's not being defensive.
That's just being realistic.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. 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 March 19, 2013 4:00 AM