Smizik: Adding shooter to mix would give Pitt boost

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After Pitt's six-point win Wednesday against Cincinnati, a game in which the Panthers converted 31 percent of their 3-point field-goal attempts, coach Jamie Dixon was asked a question that went something like this:

You've always ranked defense and rebounding as your team's top priorities, that being the case, where do you rank shooting?

Dixon, whose Panthers play Syracuse this afternoon, responded with a long, rambling answer that never came close to addressing what was asked.

But the question didn't need to be asked. Dixon's coaching philosophy speaks for him. Clearly, in his hierarchy, shooting is third, at best, in what he wants from his players. He preaches the same gospel as Ben Howland before him: Defense and rebounding. It's a philosophy that has worked stunningly well. Pitt has gone from an also-ran in the Big East to a perennial power, from a team that rarely made the NCAA tournament to one that almost always makes it.

It's not a philosophy unique to Pitt. It's probably the dominant strategy in the college game. Defense and rebounding, they say, never have an off-night, never go into a slump. But shooting is liable to be erratic: here in the first half, gone in the second.

The reason for that is this: Defense and rebounding are more a function of attitude. Shooting is more a function of technique and skill. It's easier to instill attitude and to keep it in place than it is technique and skill. That's all well and good, but shooting can't be ignored.

As much as we admire Dixon's coaching ability, and it's hard to imagine any coach in the country getting as much out of his talent, he seems to press the defense-rebounding philosophy just a bit too far.

If football is divided into offense, defense and special teams, basketball is divided into offense, defense and rebounding. Offense is when you have the ball; defense is when the other team has the ball; rebounding is when no team has the ball. If offense is a third of the game, it should be given something approaching a third the level of importance.

It's not easy to find shooters for the type of system Dixon demands. The outstanding high school basketball players are invariably great athletes, and such players have a certain style that calls from them to take the ball to the basket. It's the best way to show off their athleticism and also the easiest way -- for them -- to score. They spend much more time perfecting their slashing game than their shooting game.

When it comes time to recruit, Dixon, because of the style his teams play, looks for athletes. Most of these athletes never have developed a great shooting touch.

Years ago, Howland was asked about his preference for athletes over shooters. He said, "There are teams that shoot well but don't defend well, and the defending part is more important."

That is the philosophy by which Pitt has recruited. Just consider the Pitt guards during the Howland-Dixon years: Brandin Knight, Julius Page, Jaron Brown, Carl Krauser, Levance Fields, Keith Benjamin, Ronald Ramon. Of that group, only Ramon has anything approaching a classic outside stroke, and he has shown only flurries of superb accuracy. The remainder of that group might hit a big shot, might get hot for a period of time, but none was the kind of shooter in whose hands the ball had to be at the end of a game.

It's not easy to lure such players to Pitt. Many of the top high school shooters lack the kind of athleticism needed to play in Dixon's system. Chances are if a high school player had to rely on an outside shot, he did so because he couldn't play the high-level athletic game that is required in the Big East.

But other teams get shooters and succeed more than Pitt. We're not suggesting Pitt must recruit, say, a J.J. Reddick, the Duke great. But, within the Big East, other teams have developed great shooters and been competitive. Notre Dame comes to mind. Currently, Kyle McAlarney is making a staggering 47 percent of his 3-point attempts in conference play. Backup Ryan Ayars is making 43 percent in league games. In the past, the Irish have had outstanding outside shooters like Matt Carroll and Chris Quinn.

It can be done.

Such a player doesn't have to be a starter. But a player who can shoot well from long range, even if he plays only 15 minutes a game, can make a difference.

Pitt has failed to get beyond the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. In a sense, it has stagnated. Maybe it needs a boost. Maybe it needs a shooter.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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