Cook: Loss just part of dreadful day for Dixon

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Monday started horribly for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.

Khem Birch, the highest-rated recruit of the Dixon era who quit the team Dec. 16, went on 93.7 The Fan and blasted the coach and the program. Birch said he had no real relationship with Dixon and most of his teammates and that Pitt wasn't the "right fit" for him. He said many of the players were threatened by his All-American status. He said a lot of the players were selfish and cared more about their stats than wins.

Then, the day got worse for Dixon.

Monday night, Pitt was beaten by No. 1 Syracuse, 71-63, in the Carrier Dome. Pitt did well to hang in the game after being nearly blown out several times, but it wasn't rewarded. It was the seventh consecutive loss for Pitt and left it in last place in the Big East Conference with an 0-6 record. Looking at the schedule -- Louisville is Saturday night at the Petersen Events Center -- there is no sure win in sight. The streak of 10 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament is all but over.

Think DePaul.

That's Pitt this season.

It's enough to make any coach -- even one as successful as Dixon -- question what he's doing.

Or maybe not.

"You're always making adjustments," Dixon said even as the big crowd was headed into the chilly Syracuse night. "But we've got to get better at what we do ...

"It's hard. No one likes to lose. But we'll continue to work hard. That's the only way I know to get through it. We'll continue to push. We'll continue to try to help each player get better."

Pitt's effort against Syracuse was above the line. It always is at Syracuse, where it had won five consecutive games, the longest streak by a visiting school at the Carrier Dome.

Syracuse jumped to a 13-0 lead. Pitt fought back. Syracuse took a 26-17 lead after C.J. Fair drove the lane and had an in-your-face dunk on Pitt's Talib Zanna. Pitt fought back. Syracuse opened a 48-34 lead in the second half. Pitt fought back, closing to 53-49 before Syracuse's Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters hit consecutive 3-point shots.

But keeping it close -- even against the best team in America -- isn't good enough. Dixon will tell you that. The Pitt program is way past that.

The same problems did in Pitt. It struggled to finish inside. Syracuse blocked 11 shots, seemingly all of them taken by Zanna or Dante Taylor. Pitt had 11 turnovers in the first half. It made just 12 of 23 free throws.

"Rest assured, our guys are working hard as you saw tonight," Dixon said. He pointed to Pitt's 40-28 rebounding edge. "You're never encouraged by a loss. We expected to play well and we expected to win. But there were some good things."

Pitt also played hard Saturday at Marquette but lost, 62-57. That and the Syracuse game were big steps forward from the nightmarish 62-39 home loss Wednesday night to Rutgers.

"I think there was some improvement this week," Dixon said. "The players have battled through some injuries. They've battled through some disappointment. I'm encouraged by their determination as we go forward."

Dixon seemed stunned when told of Birch's comments. For one thing, no one has ever accused his team of being selfish. People have said it can't shoot at times over the years. They've said it can't win big NCAA tournament games. But no one has talked of egos being a problem.

"I don't see that at all," Dixon said.

Dixon said he spoke often with Birch. "I always told him to let me know how he was feeling."

Asked if he would handle Birch differently if he had a do-over, Dixon shook his head and said, "Based on what he told me, I don't know that there could have been a different way."

Know this: Dixon is past Birch. He's worried about the players he has. He'll have them back in the Petersen Events Center gym, pushing them to get better. As he said, that's the only solution he knows.

A lot of people suddenly are down on Dixon, but that's misguided frustration. His way has been largely successful. It will be successful again.

It's funny, the fans here made a big deal of Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim getting his 876th win Monday night, tying him for fourth place with Adolph Rupp on the all-time coaches list. Dixon has been on the losing end of just three of those wins. His record against Boeheim dropped to 9-3.

Now is hardly the time to give up on Dixon or his program.

Better days than Monday are ahead.



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