Bob Smizik: In (partial) defense of Dixon

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A Pitt season that is careening out of control -- four losses in the past six games and six in the past 10 -- could jump the track this afternoon as the Panthers play a crucial regular-season finale at Clemson. By most indications, Pitt is on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament. A win over Clemson could help reverse that situation. A loss would probably end Pitt’s tournament hopes.

Understandably, coach Jamie Dixon is taking the brunt of the criticism for what could best be described as a collapse. After beating Georgia Tech on Jan. 14, the Panthers were 16-1 overall and 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Today they are 22-8 and 10-7 and tied with Clemson for fifth place in the ACC.

Where did it all go wrong?

There are multiple reasons why Pitt is having a disappointing season, but one stands out above the rest: The decision of 7-foot-0 freshman center Steven Adams to opt for the NBA after last season. His departure is one from which the Panthers have not fully recovered.

Some programs -- Kentucky, Duke and a few others -- might be able to replace a first-round NBA draft choice in a few months. Pitt is not one of them.

If Adams were still around, Pitt would be a completely different team. Many were surprised when he decided to turn pro. He averaged only 7.2 points and 6.3 rebounds as a freshman. But with the NBA, especially with big men, it’s more about potential than production. The NBA saw immense potential in Adams and Oklahoma City took him with the 12th pick of the first round.

Imagine that! Adams, who had one double-digit scoring game in Big East Conference play, was a lottery pick.

Those who expected Adams to spend his first season in the NBA Developmental League were wrong. He’s hardly been a force among the pros, but nor has had shown the Thunder to be wrong for selecting him.

Oklahoma City leads the Western Conference and has the second best record in the NBA. On what is one of the best teams in the world, Adams has played in every game and it’s not just token time. He’s averaging 14.6 minutes. In the past five games, he’s averaging 19 minutes. He has a 3.3 point and a 4.1 rebound average.

Adams could have been a difference-maker for Pitt. With him at center, Talib Zanna would have played his more natural position at power forward and Pitt would have a big and outstanding front line.

It hasn’t happened and the outstanding record built up against weak competition has proven to be a mirage. Pitt does not have a signature win. It has only one win over an ACC team that currently has a winning record. That was a 33-point drubbing of Clemson on Jan. 21. That game might indicate Pitt should be in control this afternoon. But more recent events show otherwise. Pitt lost at home to North Carolina State Monday by seven. On Feb. 18, Clemson, which has won four of its last five, beat NC State by 17.

None of the above is meant as an excuse for Dixon. It’s his job to recruit the players. He hasn’t. But if Adams had stuck around one more season, the discussion taking place today about Pitt basketball would be a totally different one.

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