Bob Smizik: Dixon coaching continues to excel

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Pitt begins its drive toward a return to the top 25 and to a higher seeding in the NCAA tournament when it plays Florida State at home Sunday at the ridiculous ESPN-mandated time of 6 p.m. It is the first of the final five games of the regular season that are all winnable for the Panthers. If they do that, they’ll return to the top 25 and pick up momentum for their first-ever ACC tournament.

But what does it all mean? Not a lot, actually.

Obviously, anything can happen in athletic competition. But based on the evidence at hand, this Pitt team is not going particularly far either in the ACC or the NCAA tournaments.

And that’s going to cause a lot of people to get angry with coach Jamie Dixon.

There is only one reason for fans to react in such a manner toward Dixon: Recruiting. He simply has been unable or possibly unwilling to bring in the type of players who can enable teams to get close to winning a national championship. The only time Dixon has had two NBA-caliber players (DeJuan Blair and Sam Young) the Panthers came within a split-second of advancing to the Final Four in 2009.

In other areas, there should be no complaints about Dixon. He continues to push his teams above and beyond their actual level of play.

Consider the loss at North Carolina last Saturday. Pitt was in the game until the end, losing, 75-71, and conceivably could have won if Lamar Patterson, especially, and Cam Wright, did not miss large portions of the first half. Pitt led by five when Patterson picked up his second personal, which sat him down for the remainder of the half. With Patterson and Wright out, the Tar Heels turned that five-point deficit into a four-point lead.

Now consider the circumstances of that game.

• North Carolina has significantly better overall talent than Pitt.

• Pitt’s best player missed more than one quarter of the game with foul trouble.

• North Carolina was playing at home.

• North Carolina has a coaching legend in Roy Williams on its bench.

Yet Dixon got his team to the point it had a chance to win the game. The Panthers also came oh, so close to beating Syracuse twice this year, although the Orange have vastly superior talent. Coaching has something to do with that.

There is a long list of famous, but not necessarily correct, Dixon coaching glitches over the years. His critics love to point to them. As though no coach in all of NCAA basketball has ever made a strategic error. Of course, Dixon has made mistakes in coaching strategy. But the final word on him is that he consistently gets his team to play at higher level than its talent would dictate.

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