Big East is not the tournament that counts
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Another Pitt basketball season has ended just as it has so many times in the recent past. An exhilarating run through the Big East tournament, which spawned grand expectations, was followed by a disappointing early exit from the NCAA tournament by a lower-seeded team.
In coach Jamie Dixon's five-year tenure, the Panthers are 11-4 in Big East postseason competition and 6-5 in NCAA play.
Granted, NCAA play, after the first round, is more difficult, but the Big East is still formidable. The outstanding play in one tournament and the mediocre play in the other might be difficult to understand -- except for this:
For reasons not altogether clear, Dixon and his players place an out-of-whack, over-the-top emphasis on the Big East tournament, which should be a secondary concern. This emphasis can and probably does leave the team physically and emotionally drained for NCAA play.
Pitt goes to New York every year with this philosophy:
"We're going to do everything we can to win this tournament because our next game always is our most important game."
That's wrong. The proper philosophy to take to New York is this:
"We want to win this tournament but not at the sake of hurting our chances in NCAA play."
Does that not make sense? Isn't the NCAA tournament more important than the Big East tournament? Of course it is, and anyone who would suggest otherwise isn't thinking clearly.
Here's just one example of how Pitt overemphasizes the Big East tournament. When the Panthers beat Louisville in overtime, two of their players were on the floor for 40 minutes or more. No Louisville player was on the floor more than 33 minutes. That same pattern of overusing players was there in every game.
This is not to suggest the Big East tournament should be treated casually. That would be wrong. But it should not be treated with the level of importance Dixon and his players give it. A team can't be expected to try less hard, but a coach can be expected to preserve the energy of his players. This can be done by lengthening the bench. Instead, Dixon shortens his.
In the final two games of the Big East tournament, Dixon went with a seven-man rotation. No wonder analyst Len Elmore said several times in Pitt's loss to Michigan State Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament that the Panthers looked tired, that they had no legs in their shot.
That might not have been the case if Dixon had lengthened his bench.
Gary McGhee, for example, did not get on the floor in the Big East tournament. That's ridiculous. McGhee, a 6 foot 10 freshman, should have been part of the rotation, giving a rest to either Sam Young or DeJuan Blair so those two valuable players would be at their best for NCAA play and not possibly fatigued. Not only does it help Young and Blair, it gives McGhee valuable playing experience.
Brad Wanamaker, a player who might be starting next season, played a total of 16 minutes in the Big East tournament and did not get on the floor in the final two games. Wanamaker should have been used to spell Ronald Ramon and Levance Fields to keep them fresh for the more important games ahead.
As it was, Ramon and Young averaged 38 minutes and Fields 36 in the four Big East tournament games. Allocating those kind of minutes to a secondary tournament is poor coaching.
No one can be certain fatigue was the reason Ramon and Fields shot a combined 1 for 9 from 3-point range against Michigan State or that Young was 4 for 12 from the field. But it might have been, and that possibility should have been enough for Dixon to keep his players fresh instead of overextending them.
Just where Pitt gets this high opinion of the Big East tournament is unfathomable. In reality, it is a series of made-for-television exhibition games. It might affect seeding, but as Pitt's case proved -- so what? And for every team it helps get into the NCAA tournament, it knocks another one out. It's a great time and some exciting basketball in a fabulous venue. But it's a paper title -- Georgetown, not Pitt, is the Big East champion -- and Dixon is foolish to seek it with such ardor.
How many times does Pitt appear to be generating great momentum in the Big East tournament only to show none of that in NCAA play? Consider:
• 2002: Pitt played three Big East games and lost a memorable double-overtime final to Connecticut; it went from there, with a clear path to the Final Four, to lose in the round of 16 to 10th-seeded Kent State.
• 2003: Played three games and won the Big East title against Connecticut; went from there to lose to Marquette, another lower seed, in the round of 16.
• 2006: Went 3-1 in the Big East, including a 14-point semifinal win against Villanova, the No. 2 team in the nation; went from there, as a fifth seed, to lose to 13th-seeded Bradley in the round of 32.
• 2008: Went 4-0 in the Big East and was widely believed to be peaking; lost to lower-seeded Michigan State in the round of 32.
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Dixon and his players aren't just ignoring history, they're ignoring reality by overemphasizing the meaningless Big East tournament.
First Published March 25, 2008 12:00 am