Cook: Connecticut's Calhoun praises Pitt coach Dixon

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As endorsements go, this one is a lot like Jack Ham calling Paul Posluszny the greatest linebacker in Penn State history, Tony Dorsett saying Pitt running back Dion Lewis has the "Wow!" factor and Mario Lemieux telling the hockey world that Penguins center Sidney Crosby is "a better player than I was at the same age, for sure."

This is Connecticut Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun on Pitt's Jamie Dixon:

"This Pitt team is the best stamp of what Jamie Dixon does. The pieces there change. But they don't change as a program. They're without three stars from last year, but they continue to march on. They're playing with the same confidence they've always had. They're good. They're really good. You have to say their system has been fool-proof."

Pretty impressive, right?

There's more.

"I've always looked at Jamie as a good coach," Calhoun was saying over the telephone yesterday from Storrs, Conn. "Other people finally are starting to see that and talk about it. He's one of the best coaches in our league. The identity of Pitt basketball is him. It's no longer Ben [Howland]. Jamie is the star of that program."

If I'm Dixon, I'm knocking on Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson's door today to ask for a raise.

Just kidding, Steve.

OK, maybe not.

All Dixon has done since taking over for Howland at Pitt after the 2002-03 season is win. A 176-47 overall record. A 73-30 record in Big East Conference games. Six consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, including a run to the Final Eight last season.

But what Dixon is getting out of this Pitt team just might be his finest work. Who could have guessed the Panthers would be No. 16 in the country heading into their game at Connecticut tomorrow night? Who could have imagined they would be 3-0 in the Big East with impressive road wins against Syracuse and Cincinnati?

I wish I could say I saw it coming after everyone Pitt lost from that great team last season. DeJuan Blair and Sam Young to the NBA. Levance Fields to a Russian pro league. Tyrell Biggs to the pros in Greece.

Then again, no one can say they saw this early season Pitt success coming. If they do, they're lying.

Calhoun can appreciate Dixon's results better than just about anyone. He knows how difficult it is to win with less. His 2005-06 Connecticut team went 30-4 and made it to the Final Eight before losing to George Mason in overtime. His 2006-07 squad hardly resembled that bunch after four players went as No. 1 picks in the NBA draft, including lottery selections Rudy Gay and Hilton Armstrong, a fifth went in the second round and a sixth signed to play professionally in Italy. The 2006-07 Connecticut team went 6-10 in the Big East and didn't make the NCAA tournament.

The truth?

That's about what I had in mind for Pitt this season as recently as Dec. 28, the night it struggled to beat DePaul at home in its Big East opener with a mediocre performance.

Then, it went to Syracuse and Cincinnati and won.

Again, I learned I should never underestimate Dixon's coaching.

The pieces there change. But they don't change as a program ...

"I've always liked [Jermaine] Dixon and [Gilbert] Brown," Calhoun said of Pitt's top two veteran players. "[Brad] Wanamaker hurt us last year when we were worried about their other people. Ashton [Gibbs] has done a good job.

"But they've just got a very good team. It's all about numbers. Their depth, now that they're healthy, seems to be what sets them apart."

Calhoun said something else interesting about Gibbs, who leads Pitt in scoring with 17.5 points a game and has made nearly 41 percent of his 3-point shots.

"Guys who are stars in their system might not be as big a stars as they would be somewhere else. Gibbs might be a bigger name somewhere else. For instance, [Jeremy] Hazell [of Seton Hall] is a bigger name in our league right now. But I see each game and I know what each team's record is."

Calhoun didn't mean that just as a compliment to Gibbs. He meant it as one to Dixon, who, once again, has managed to get his players to set aside their egos for the good of the team, to make the next pass to get a better shot, to do the dirty rebounding work and, above all, to always play suffocating defense.

Funny, Dixon made those same demands of the USA under-19 team this past summer. Wouldn't you know that squad won the gold medal at the FIBA world championship in Auckland, New Zealand?

Of course, it won.

One final Calhoun endorsement:

"I used to say Jamie was a good young coach. Now, I just say he's a good coach."

That says it all, actually.

Ron Cook can be reached at . First Published January 12, 2010 5:00 AM


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