Ron Cook: My money, and Pitt's, says Dixon is the right fit


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SALT LAKE CITY

The first email came in at 4:11 p.m. Thursday, even before Pitt's 73-55 loss to Wichita State officially became the latest hideous chapter in its NCAA tournament history.

"Go to USC Jamie!" John wrote.

More emails quickly followed. There was this from Jay in Ross Township: "Jamie is one of the most overrated D-1 coaches in college basketball." And this from Jon in Phoenix, Ariz.: "Fans don't care about regular-season stats. They want to see their team win and advance late in March. Pitt has wildly underachieved and it's probably time for a change." And this from Ed: "Pitt basketball has broken my heart, frustrated me and disappointed me for the last time."

The emails still are coming, although many are even more venomous after the news Saturday.

Jamie Dixon is staying as Pitt's coach and signed a new contract through the 2022-23 season.

Not that there was much doubt.

Dixon has been in Pittsburgh 14 years, the past 10 as head coach. He has become a Pittsburgh guy. Pittsburgh is the only home his two children, Jack, 10, and Shannon, 9, have known. I think he will be here for as long as Pitt wants him, which, based on his new contract, appears to be for a very long time.

Great for Pitt.

Dixon is a good coach.

"I'm not looking to leave," Dixon said. "I've said that over and over. Pittsburgh has been so great to me and my family. I'm very happy here. My wife is very happy here. Every day, I try to prove that with my actions. Words don't seem to do it. People don't believe me when I say I'm staying."

Now, perhaps, they will.

Dixon isn't perfect. He has won a lot of games with defense and rebounding, an average of 26.2 wins per season during his 10-year run. But, too often, Pitt has lost big games because it doesn't have a great shooter. It has made the NCAA tournament nine times under Dixon but hasn't made it to a Final Four and has played in just one Round of Eight.

Pitt hasn't had a good shooter since Sam Young and Levance Fields were teammates in 2009. Not coincidentally, that was the Pitt team that made it to the Round of Eight.

Dixon didn't give a direct answer when asked if he needs to recruit a better scorer and help that player thrive in Pitt's team-first system, which isn't always attractive to a future NBA star. Instead, he talked about how Pitt annually ranks among the best teams in the country in offensive efficiency. This season, Pitt led the Big East Conference with a shooting percentage of 47.2. It was tied with Notre Dame in assist-to-turnover ratio. It led the conference in offensive rebounding percentage.

"We don't usually turn it over 15 times and we don't usually shoot 1 for 17 from 3," Dixon said, referring to Pitt's lame performance against Wichita State.

Dixon forced another smile.

"At least they can't say we missed our free throws in this game. We made 80 percent."

Yes, there was that.

All of that offensive efficiency and assist-to-turnover ratio stuff is great, but it's still nice to think Dixon will find a better shooter or two. Until he does and until Pitt goes deeper in the NCAA tournament, he's going to have his critics.

In the uncomfortable moments after the loss to Wichita State, I asked Dixon if he was aware that many in the team's fan base were lining up to beat him beyond recognition. He smiled a sad smile. "It's the NCAA tournament," he said. "Everybody is watching. They might not watch during the season, but they're watching now. If you lose, they're going to have their opinions."

Dixon knows the general consensus. He's given credit for being a wonderful regular-season coach, but he gets ripped for his teams coming up small in the NCAA tournament. Dixon said this isn't the first time he has heard the criticism. He heard plenty in 2011 after Pitt, as a No. 1 seed, lost its second game to No. 8 Butler. He heard it in 2010 when No. 3 Pitt lost its second game to No. 6 Xavier. He even heard it in 2009 after No. 1 Pitt lost a brutal 78-76 game to No. 3 Villanova in the Round of Eight, one step short of the Final Four.

"I've never had one yet when they've said, 'It's all right to lose,' " Dixon said. "There are no good losses in the NCAA tournament. They all hurt. It doesn't matter when you lose. We want to win the championship. Everyone wants to win it. But not many do."

Dixon deserves much credit for jacking up the expectations at Pitt. When he came to town as Ben Howland's assistant in 1999, the program was a disgrace. It hadn't made it to an NCAA tournament since 1993. First, Howland, then Dixon, turned Pitt into a Big East Conference power. Now, it's looked at much the same way the Steelers and Penguins are. If it doesn't win it all -- or at least come darn close -- it is a failure.

"It's a good point to be at," Dixon said. "You'd rather be talked about for losing games in the tournament than for not making it. Not everyone makes it. We've made it more than most. You've got to win a lot of games just to get in. We've done that. That can't be forgotten, if you're objective."

Objective?

Who's objective?

"We've just got to keep getting back here," Dixon said.

The implication was that Pitt eventually will kick down the door that holds it back in the NCAA tournament. It will make it past the Round of 64 next time. It will get to the Round of Eight again and maybe make it to a Final Four. It might even win the national championship.

I still believe Dixon can get it done.

I still believe he's a good coach and the right man for Pitt.

Be careful what you wish. If, for some reason, Dixon does take another job after next season or the season after or at any point, you will miss him. You won't really appreciate him until he's gone.

That's it for this morning.

I have to go.

I'm guessing there will be many new emails to answer.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.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 24, 2013 4:15 AM


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