Expectations drive how one evaluates a myriad of things. If you expect a prime rib but get a hot dog, it's probably a letdown. If you expect a car for your 16th birthday but get a bus pass, well you're probably irate. As a Pitt fan, if your expectations have been for the team to reach the Sweet 16 (at a minimum) every March, then you've probably been let down more times than not over the last decade.
I don’t find it unreasonable for fans to clamor for a more successful end to every season given how well the team has performed under head coach Jamie Dixon. In fact, it speaks volumes about both the program and Dixon that such expectations exist.
In the 10 seasons that Dixon has manned the sidelines at the Petersen Events Center, the Panthers are 288-96, a 75% win percentage. His 188 wins through his first seven seasons as head coach are tied for the most in Division I history. He won the Naismith College Coach of the Year Award after the 2008-2009 season in which he broke the record for most victories of any head coach in their first six seasons.
There is no doubt that Dixon has built a very, very strong program that consistently meets or exceeds expectations in the regular season. The disappointment from most fans stems from what the team has and/or hasn't accomplished during March Madness. To be fair, Dixon has guided his teams to the NCAA Tournament in every season but one – the 2011-2012 season – but their regular season success hasn’t quite translated to the ‘big dance’.
In their nine trips to the NCAA Tournament under Dixon, Pitt has made three Sweet 16's and one Elite Eight. They've been eliminated in their first game just twice, but have lost in their second game four times. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Panthers haven't made it out of the first weekend 66% of the time that causes a lot of fans to get frustrated. Perhaps it's the unknown teams they've lost to (Pacific, Bradley, and Wichita State).
Having lived here for most of my life, I know this city celebrates championships above all else, and anything short of a Final Four appearance isn't going to appease some fans. I won't back off my stance that Pitt needs to have legit NBA talent on their roster before they can win the NCAA Championship, but I definitely don't feel like failing to do so means the season, and Dixon, were unsuccessful.
I am not in the camp to replace a guy with Dixon's credentials and merits just for the sake of it. I often marvel at just how many people call for a coaching change when there aren't better candidates out there. Sure, if a more accomplished coach such as Tom Izzo suddenly decides that he wants to don the blue and gold then you need to listen. With that said, I can't remember there being a better candidate available the last few seasons.
Conversely, if Dixon were to go on the open market, a lot of schools would be calling...a lot. Also, it's easy to forget that we're talking college sports here. It's as much about the development of the players, both on and off the court, as it is about wins and losses. By all accounts, minus one or two immature kids (YURI!!), Dixon has done an outstanding job in that area.
On the court, every Dixon team buys in on the defensive end or they don't play. He's old school in that he believes your play, not your name, determines how much playing time you get. But to his credit, Khem Birch and Steven Adams were starters as freshman, and they were both extremely raw.
Sure, I'd like to see some stronger on-the-fly adjustments during games (he's seems to be solid during halftime), and an offensive system that is better suited for today's game. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain why none of his teams can make free throws consistently, but my anecdotal thought is that given how often they like feeding the ball to their bigs, it’s the low percentage frontcourt players that take a bulk of the free throws.
It's kind of ironic that I am writing about the success of the program as if it hinges on one man. Then again, that’s exactly how some fans assign responsibility. Having attended my fair share of press conferences this past season, I don't think Dixon would have it any other way. He takes accountability for how his team performs regardless of how egregious an error on a player’s part. He gets it.
As a city without an NBA team (I can only dream), all eyes turn to Cardiac Hill when it comes to hoops. While we aren’t raising NCAA Final Four or Championship banners to the rafters, the fact that Dixon’s teams are consistently in position to do so is more than most programs can say.