Ron Cook: A Pitt victory vs. Wisconsin will make it a successful season
March 15, 2016 12:06 AM
Steve Helber/Associated Press
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon still has aspirations of winning a national title with the Panthers, just don't expect them to cut down the nets this year.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Times change. Teams change. Expectations change.
So it is with the Pitt basketball team.
Once, it was Final Four-or-bust program. Now, it’s beat Wisconsin Friday night in an NCAA tournament first-round game and it’s a successful season.
That’s how far Pitt basketball has fallen.
This Pitt team is fortunate. Fortunate it had its patsy Syracuse on its schedule three times. Fortunate there are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament. Fortunate the selection committee showed a decided bias against mid-major schools.
Pitt even got lucky with its tournament slot. It is a No. 10 seed and Wisconsin a 7, but the teams will play what looks like a pick-’em game. This isn’t the same Wisconsin team that upset undefeated Kentucky a year ago in the Final Four and lost to Duke in the national championship. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker left for the NBA as No. 1 draft picks. The coach, Bo Ryan, surprised everyone by announcing his retirement in December. Wisconsin beat Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland and Iowa during the season but isn’t playing its best ball. It lost at Purdue in its final regular-season game and to Nebraska in its first Big Ten Conference tournament game. Pitt can beat Wisconsin if it makes its outside shots. It won’t be a shocking upset if that happens. And if Pitt does win, it almost certainly will play No. 2-seeded Xavier Sunday in the second round. Xavier is the worst of the 2s in the tournament field.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Let’s not even dream of a potential Pitt-West Virginia matchup in the Round of 16. It might take a tournament-mandated game to get the teams together. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has been saying for years that Pitt and coach Jamie Dixon have been ducking the Mountaineers.
OK, so maybe I am already dreaming of Pitt-West Virginia.
But back to Wisconsin.
It’s interesting that Dixon’s greatest NCAA tournament moment came against Wisconsin. Pitt was a No. 3 seed in 2004 when it beat the No. 6 Badgers in its second game. That day was memorable because the game was played in Milwaukee in front of a throbbing pro-Wisconsin crowd.
That was Dixon’s first season at Pitt, a 31-win season that was the start of his incredible run in the Big East Conference. Pitt won the regular-season championship under him in 2004 and 2011 and the league tournament title in 2008. It went to the NCAA tournament in each of Dixon’s first eight seasons. It was a No. 1 seed in the 2009 and 2011 NCAAs.
Final Four-or-bust, right?
Pitt didn’t make it, of course. It lost to No. 3 Villanova in 2009 in the Round of 8. Even worse, it lost as a No. 1 seed to No. 8 Butler in its second-round game in 2011. Throw in Pitt’s losses to lower seeds Bradley in 2006 and Xavier in 2010. Add the fact a Dixon team never beat a higher seed in the tournament until the 2014 team was a No. 9 seed and blew out No. 8 Colorado in its first game. It was not a good combination.
You know who took the blame.
Dixon was castigated.
“We’ve probably made getting to the tournament look easier than it really is,” he said in 2014.
Not that Dixon was complaining.
“I understand how people feel. I’m right there with them. I want to win a national championship. That’s the separator. Until we do, no matter what we do, it’s never going to be enough.”
The guess here is Dixon won’t be so widely criticized if Pitt loses to Wisconsin. A lot of people seem to have lost interest in the program. It hasn’t been nearly as successful in the ACC as it was in the Big East. Dixon is 28-26 in ACC regular-season games after going 115-58 in the Big East. Pitt missed the NCAA tournament in two of the four seasons before this one. It hasn’t been beyond the first weekend of the NCAAs since 2009. Dixon, despite a terrific 328-122 overall record, is just 12-10 in NCAA tournament games.
All of that has lowered expectations of the Pitt program to their lowest point during the Dixon era. Even more was expected from that ninth-seeded 2014 team, which, after beating Colorado, lost to No. 1 Florida. That team won three of its final four regular-season games, including one at Notre Dame, and beat Wake Forest and North Carolina in the ACC tournament. This Pitt team went 4-7 down the stretch. It beat Syracuse — doesn’t it always? — in the ACC tournament before getting crushed by North Carolina. Of the teams in the NCAA field, it defeated only Notre Dame, Duke and Syracuse. And Syracuse has absolutely no business being in the tournament.
That’s why a Pitt win against Wisconsin should satisfy the masses.
That’s why a Pitt win will make it a successful season.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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