Pitt basketball preview: The challenge of Tobacco Road

Jamie Dixon has heard many times about the Panthers' style of play and he laughs because he believes it is mostly based on assumptions as opposed to statistics.

And now that the Panthers, a team rightly or wrongly known as a rough-and-tumble, physical defensive team, are joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, known as a finesse league, he has faced more questions about how his team will adapt and survive.

Dixon contends that people who say his defensive style does not fit in with the way ACC games are played really haven't looked at the numbers and, more important, don't understand that a league of 15 teams is going to have teams that play many different styles.

"I've looked at the numbers, numbers of possessions, scoring numbers and I know people keep saying this stuff about the ACC playing the game differently, but it really is a case of people not letting the facts get in the way of a good story," Dixon said. "I looked at all of the offensive numbers, and it just isn't the case. There are a few outliers -- like North Carolina -- but the style of play in the ACC isn't that much different than the Big East.

"I even fell into it myself when I was convinced that Miami last year was a transition team that ran up and down, but the reality is they were last in the league in possessions per game and played slower than just about everyone in the league."

Dixon said he has had to battle against this line of thinking while recruiting when players have voiced concerns about the Panthers' style of play on offense and how it might not be a good fit for the ACC.

His answer is always the same: Look at the numbers and the numbers tell a different story.

"I'll talk to these recruits, and they will tell me about how much different or how much more they'll get to score at another school, and I'll say to them 'Well, we actually scored more points per game than they did,' " Dixon said. "So that is something that people say, but I don't think it will be an adjustment and for the reason I just said -- when you play in a big conference with a lot of teams you will see everything."

Although the scoring numbers are only one way to compare the two leagues, there is some merit to Dixon's assertion that the Big East teams entering the ACC -- Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse -- won't be out of place.

Syracuse averaged 71.3 points per game last year, Notre Dame 70.4 and Pitt 69.6, which would put all three in the top half of scoring in the ACC.

There is, however, a noticeable difference at the top: Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State averaged 77 points or more per game; Louisville led the Big East at 73.6.

But beyond those top three -- outliers, as Dixon called them -- the two leagues are far more similar than not.

The Big East had seven of 15 teams average 69 points per game or more while the ACC had six of 12 teams average at least 69 points.

The Panthers would have ranked eighth in the ACC (as it will be constituted this year) in scoring.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said at the conference's basketball media day last month that the styles of play argument isn't that valid because adjustments go both ways: The three Big East teams adjusting to the ACC; the ACC adjusting to additions from the Big East.

"They probably haven't seen anything like the zone Syracuse plays or a team that plays with the physicality of a Pitt," Brey said.

"I think that those are things that will all take care of themselves once we all settle in.

"The thing that could hurt Pitt is that some nights it may come down to who is officiating the game and how it is being called."

Dixon said that he can point to other numbers -- the Panthers' offensive efficiency numbers, which are almost always near the best in the nation -- and possessions to show that the leagues aren't that different.

And he also knows that the Panthers likely will carry the physical label because of the city they represent. He is OK with that, too.

"Honestly, we could score 112 points a night and people would still say we play slow and our style isn't going to fit with teams like North Carolina," Dixon said. "When you are Pittsburgh, you are always going to be associated with the Steelers, with the toughness of a steel town, the physicality, the blue collar, defensive work ethic.

"But, you know, I don't mind that. Believe me, there are far worse things to be associated with than the Steelers and playing great defense."

The ACC and its commissioner, John Swofford, spent a lot of time telling anyone who would listen that the conference would have the best compilation of teams in college, but Dixon is cautious about making such a claim.

He said the league is still somewhat in transition because there are a lot of first- or second-year coaches and many are trying to build or rebuild their programs.

He said the two things that will ultimately determine the quality of the ACC are the teams at the top winning in the NCAA tournament, and the teams in the bottom half being strong as well.

"NCAA bids are what people will look at as the indicator," Dixon said. "We had an 11-bid season in the Big East, we had a year when we had three number one seeds. Those are the things that matter most. You can say we have a great league, and we do, but you need to have those things as concrete evidence that your league really and truly is the best.

"And you know, the thing that gave Ben [Howland] and I hope when we got to Pitt rings true here as well -- before we arrived at Pitt everybody in the Big East had their year, the year when they rose up and got to a Final Four or something. And that meant the conference was pulling some teams up and providing an opportunity to be successful. The hope is it happens here."

Dixon said that, if you look at the bottom of the Big East, there wasn't -- except for DePaul -- a weak team or an easy night, especially on the road.

"It seems like we have been talking about this transition for a long time, too long actually," Dixon said.

"It is time to get the season started, and let's see how it all fits together.

"I'm excited, this is a new opportunity for all of us. and we do have a chance to be a part of something that is special."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720 or Twitter @paulzeise.

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