It wasn’t hard to guess what would be the major topic of discussion on sports-talk radio and various Internet sites following Pitt’s stunning and staggering loss to Syracuse Wednesday night. Front and center, standing alone, was Pitt coach Jamie Dixon’s decision to call a timeout with 4.4 seconds remaining, the Panthers up by one point and Syracuse with the ball 94 feet from the hoop.
Dixon was pretty much lambasted for calling the timeout and allowing Syracuse to get organized and come up with a plan of action. The fact the plan turned out to be nothing more than a mad dash up the court and a desperation shot -- which was good -- didn’t seem to register with the critics. Furthermore, had Dixon not called a timeout guess what would have happened? He would have been shredded for failing to call a timeout and not getting his defense organized.
If ever there were a walking example of the expression, ''He’s a victim of his own success,’’ it’s Dixon, who has raised Pitt basketball to a level it never before has achieved. But in raising it, he has helped generate a vociferous band of critics who don’t believe he has achieved enough.
For example: How many times have we heard this prediction in the past two weeks: ''Pitt will be one and done in the tournament.’’ Or the slightly more optimistic: ''Pitt will be out after the first weekend.’’
The fact some 275 teams don’t even make the tournament is lost on Dixon’s critics. The time when tournament invitations were a cause for celebration is long past. The invitation is now expected. The cause for celebration will be a Final Four appearance.
Dixon is 282-91, a .756 winning percentage, since succeeding Ben Howland in 2003. To give that number some perspective, Mike Krzyzewski has .764 winning percentage in his career (.788 at Duke), Jim Boeheim .750 and Jim Calhoun .702 (.726 at Connecticut).
So what’s not to like? Two things: Recruiting and postseason success.
The two actually go together. Under Dixon, Pitt has been outstanding in getting to the NCAA tournament -- nine times in 10 years and this season figures to make it 10 in 11. But once there, the Panthers have been chronic underachievers, routinely losing to lower-seeded teams, although, in fairness, recently two of those teams advanced to the Final Four. The reason for the lack of success is not Dixon’s coaching, but his recruiting.
He has been unable to attract the type of NBA-caliber talent that is required to advance far in the tournament. Pitt's best tournament run was in 2009, when it had two NBA players on its roster, DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. Usually, it has zero, which is the case this season.
There are two schools of thought on why Dixon can’t get these high-caliber players. One is quite simple: He won’t get cozy with AAU coaches and street agents, which often is required, sometimes for starters, to obtain the best players. The other is more complicated. It goes like this: Dixon is not a good recruiter. He plays a style of basketball that does not appeal to the elite recruits. He is too demanding of such players on those occasions when he gets them.
There are degrees of truth and untruth to all of that. But the fact remains Pitt does not do well in the postseason, and almost assuredly won’t this year, and the reason is the level of talent on the team.
So what is Pitt going to do about this? Some would suggest Dixon be fired. To those, I would say this: Be careful of what you wish. Some ancient history. In 1965, Pitt fired John Michelosen as its football coach two years after the Panthers were 9-1. His successor, Dave Hart, was 3-27. Some recent history: After the 2010 season, Pitt fired Dave Wannstedt, who was 29-12 in his final three seasons. His successors have been 19-20.
There’s no guarantee the next coach will be better.
People who think Sean Miller would leave Arizona for Pitt are daft. Nor would, as some have suggested, the charismatic Shaka Smart leave Virginia Commonwealth. He’s already turned down better jobs. There might be a young coach out there -- the next Rick Pitino -- who could replace Dixon and take Pitt to a higher level. But there are no guarantees. For every young coach who might be the next Pitino, there are 500 who are not. And if Pitt found the next Pitino, how long would he stay?
The solution is quite simple: Keep Dixon, the man who has elevated the program to where we are now in what is beyond doubt the Golden Era of Pitt basketball.