Bob Smizik: Dixon can improve, but Pitt can’t improve on Dixon

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The Pitt basketball season ended Saturday, which was sooner than anyone wanted but not sooner than most expected. Florida, an excellent team, made Pitt look ordinary, at best, in a 15-point win in a third-round game in the NCAA tournament.

This defeat particularly angered a highly vocal minority of Pitt fans who believe that merely making the NCAA tournament, once a cause for celebration, is not enough. They demand Pitt be, at least, among the final 16 teams in the field, if not the final eight -- or four.

They want Dixon’s job, although before Dixon Pitt’s appearances in the tournament were random and hardly consistent. Pitt made two NCAA tournament appearances in the 1990s. Under Ben Howland, they made the tournament in 2002 and 2003. Dixon picked it up from there and has taken Pitt to the tournament 10 times in 11 years.

The shouts for his firing make him the dictionary definition of 'a victim of his own success.’

In the comment section of the story about the loss to Florida, there were repeated attempts to suggest Dixon’s success is based on a soft pre-conference schedule. These are Dixon’s records in the Big East, which throughout his time in the league was one of the best, if not the best, conference in the country: 13-3, 10-6, 10-6, 12-4, 10-8, 15-3, 13-5, 15-3, 5-13, 12-6.

Does that read like a coach who built his record by beating weak teams? So, please, stop with the nonsense that Dixon’s success is built on a weak schedule. It was built on being the most successful coach in the toughest conference in the country.

But he’s far from perfect. Fair critics have two legitimate gripes against Dixon: His recruiting and his tournament record.

Based on his regular-season record, his recruiting is fine. But he has not been able to consistently land top-tier talent, the kind that wins in the NCAA tournament.

Recruiting at Pitt is not easy. It cannot offer what many basketball powerhouse do in terms of tradition, facilities, NBA opportunity and a campus environment. That doesn’t mean Pitt can’t do better. Premier talent such as Charles Smith, Brian Shorter and Curtis Aiken were recruited to Pitt when the school had less to offer. Dixon needs to look hard at his assistant coaches to see if they have the recruiting ability to bring in NBA-caliber talent that will push Pitt to the next level. He needs to look at his own role in the recruiting process.

There’s no denying Dixon’s lack of success in the tournament. Pitt too often has lost to lower-seeded teams. In his 10 appearances, he has advanced to the round of 16 three times and once to the round of eight.

But how does firing Dixon fix that problem? There is scant reason to believe the next coach will take Pitt to a higher level.

Most of the highly successful coaches in the country, the ones who might bring something approaching a guarantee of success with them, would find Pitt either a lateral or a lower move. In the comment section Saturday, someone suggested Sean Miller, Billy Donovan, John Calipari and Rick Pitino. Miller might listen, but wouldn’t come. The other three would laugh.

If Dixon were fired, Pitt would be picking a new coach from a pool that in most, if not all, cases would include no sure things.

The local flavor of the month is Archie Miller, a Blackhawk High grad and the brother of Sean. He has Dayton in the round of 16. He’s already being mentioned for the opening at Marquette. When Miller took over, the Flyers had averaged 24 wins in the previous four seasons. He has averaged 21 in three seasons, while finishing fifth, 11th and fifth in the Atlantic 10.

Does anyone see a guarantees there?

Two of the brightest young stars in the coaching business in recent years were proteges of Mike Krzyzewski. Their difficulties are an indication that young coaches with excellent resumes are not necessarily the answer.

• In six seasons at Stanford, Johnny Dawkins, who served a 10-year apprenticeship at Duke, made the tournament for the first time this year. He’s had two winning conference records in six seasons.

• Tommy Amaker, like Dawkins an outstanding Duke guard, was on Krzyzewski’s staff for nine years. In his first head coaching job, he was 32-36 in Big East play at Seton Hall. At Michigan, he was 43-53 in Big Ten play in six years and never made the NCAA tournament.

After the 2010 season, Pitt fired football coach Dave Wannstedt because it believed it could do better. Pitt averaged nine wins over Wannstedt’s final three season. His successors have averaged six wins in three seasons.

Pitt has one of the best basketball coaches in the country. Firing him would be the height of stupidity.

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