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Thoughts on the Pitt Basketball Program

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Just my take on where things are and where they could go.

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Obviously everyone has an opinion on the state of Pitt basketball these days. Every time Pitt loses a game, Armageddon happens over Twitter and all of the Pitt message boards, and every win just keeps people quiet until the next loss.  It's a vicious and tireless cycle. Here are just some of my thoughts I've gathered from reading those opinions and takes on the issues or perceived issues at hand.

This year's team - OK, speaking entirely of this year - here is the deal.  This Pitt team was picked 10th in the league.  As the story goes Pitt has lost to teams like Louisville, Virginia, Purdue, Clemson, and Miami.  Four of those teams currently rank in the nation's top 25.  Those aren't "bad" losses, in fact at the start of the season most of those games would have been assumed losses.  The fashion in which they lost some of those games are alarming though.  The North Carolina State game was a bad loss in every sense of the term, even though they were picked higher than Pitt to start the year, it's clear they were overrated.   As far as "good" wins go, Pitt does indeed have some of them. Winning AT Notre Dame and Florida State are good, solid top 50 RPI wins - Notre Dame actually is a top 25 win looking at it now.  Beating Syracuse at home quantifies as a good win also by the metrics, and even Davidson on a neutral floor stacks up fairly well too.  I'm not making those things up, they have ONE bad loss and FOUR good wins.

Rest of the Way - I have no idea how things will play out, but I suspect they don't beat North Carolina, but they may give them a good game.  From there, Pitt needs to beat Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech for certain.  Beyond that, they probably need to beat Syracuse and split with Duke or Louisville.  I think 4-3 would get them in, but 5-2 makes things a little more comfortable on selection Sunday. The ACC Tournament is a bridge we'll have to discuss when Pitt gets there.

Jamie Dixon as a coach - Not many people would argue this, but maybe some extremists would.  He's a really good coach, NOT a good recruiter but his x's and o's and what he gets out of the talent he has is no doubt impressive. The guy has won a lot of games, hung some banners for his Big East success, and won some individual accolades as well. The makeup of the past two Pitt teams has been frustrating, but he still has solid game plans.

Ben Howland - It's bizarre, and maybe it's because of Pitt's struggles the past year and a half, but I have no idea why his name still gets mentioned as much as it does.   Howland turned the program from a nightmare to one of the surprise teams for a few seasons.  He did an awesome job, but from there Dixon didn't just ride the coattails, he elevated it.  The teams that followed were Dixon's doing.  The 2008 Elite 8 and the 2011 Big East champion teams? All Jamie.  Ben Howland did lay a strong foundation, but any idiot could have turned Pitt back into a middling program towards the bottom of the Big East after he left. It's not like Howland was here 20 years, he was here four and Jamie was his right hand man for those four, his finger prints are all over this thing as much as Howland's.

Style of Play - Dixon's teams are never quite as good defensively as the national media tells you it is, and his offense is generally better than you realize.  When a perception starts, basketball analysts just get lazy and repetitive.  Didn't Len Elmore say Pitt was a great defensive team the other night? HUH?  They aren't even remotely close to a good defensive team.  No offense to Len, but he's just following the narrative that was started long ago.

My point is, people always point to how Dixon's play and how no good players will come play for it.  That's asinine to me. Virginia plays a slow it down and beat you up defensive game, and it works and they've been the best team in ACC for a few years now.  Wisconsin just went to the final last year, in what world has a Bo Ryan coached team play an "exciting" brand of basketball? Talent negates style.

Non-Conference Schedules - Dixon's schedules usually feature 2-3 games worth noting, a standing game with Duquesne, and 10 games that aren't so desirable.  If Pitt plays in a preseason tournament or event, they usually tack on two or three games with the main event, so add on the Duquesne and ACC/Big Ten challenge, that leaves him six or seven games to schedule.  I think moving forward, you will see some better schedules. Scott Barnes listens to the fans, and that's what they want.  Pitt isn't going to play 10 world beaters, because they already do that in conference play. They will likely add one or two more attractive and competitive games to the mix.  We know Pitt plays two at the Garden next year against either SMU, Marquette, and Michigan plus Duquesne and a Big Ten team. Expect another quality game or two.

Recruiting - Right now, Pitt isn't recruiting as well as they could be.  A lot of recruiting misses and roster breakdowns have happened the past 3-4 years, and it's left Pitt scrambling and has forced them to try to the graduate transfer route, not just for a boost here and there, but as a way to complete the roster.  In an ideal world, that's not how Pitt is going to have success.  Pitt isn't going to get a roster of five-stars and four-stars, but Dixon has shown he can have success without a roster full of those guys.

Still, Pitt needs at least 4-5 guys with higher recruiting rankings (four-stars) to anchor the roster and 7-8 guys that are solid three-stars that he can develop.  Pitt has a good core roster right now, but they don't have a center and their past two point guard recruits, James Robinson and Josh Newkirk, have not come through how they were expected to when they got here.  Is it a fair assumption that if Robinson or Newkirk was where we thought they would be now that Pitt would be a better team? I mean I think it absolutely is to me.  Newkirk was supposed to break out last season, and Robinson was supposed to be, well better than he is.

Pitt Program pre-2002 - I see the word regress a lot. Still in a regressive state - the team and program as is stands now is in better shape than many Pitt basketball teams and eras throughout history.  If you have read the comments section lately I have pointed out that they made the tournament 1 time in the 60's, 1 time in the 70's, 6 times in the 1980's, and twice in the 1990's. So my point really, Dixon's tenure has accomplished just as much as the previous four decades.  He is the school's most successful coach, or at least the most successful since Doc Carlson.

Pitt has regressed from their 2003-2011 run, but it's still in far better shape than the program was before Dixon showed up in Pittsburgh. So it's kind of testament to Dixon that he raised the expectations among all of us Pitt fans, myself including, but that's also kind of his downfall or at least the rallying cry for his critics.  Pitt fans expect the same kind of results as better programs than Pitt, and while that's great on some years, on year's like this it just shows how good the Kentucky's and Duke's of the world really are to maintain their early success.

Jamie's future - As much as some people wish him gone, he's pretty much locked in for a few more years or until the end of his contract. Dixon's the school's best coach in history, he's never embarrassed the school off the court, he's generally well liked, and again tempering with the school's so-so basketball history, it's not exactly a cut and dry case to get rid of him. Hard to dismiss a guy that runs a clean and successful program.  Maybe a few more years of no postseason berths, than we'll start talking, but for now he's going to be here.

Can Pitt rebound next season? - As crazy as it sounds, I think they may be fairly good team next year.  There's some variables in there that need to transpire, but as long as you have a team with Young, Artis, and Jeter - you'll be in the hunt just like they are this year.  I'm hopeful the guard trio of Damon Wilson, Justice Kithcart, and Jonathan Milligan can outperform Robinson and Smith.  I'm under the impression Ryan Luther and Cameron Johnson will continue to improve on a year to year basis.  They also have one roster spot to play with, so we'll have to see if it's a guy that can add value. I generally like this year's team, but the seniors haven't played up to snuff.

My general overall feeling - I like Jamie Dixon, but I like Pitt more. I want what is best for this program, and I'm stuck somewhere in-between on the matter.  Firing a successful coach is two-edged sword. I look at Georgia Football firing Mark Richt or Nebraska firing Frank Solich. Different sport, same principle -  good solid coaches getting fired for stagnant seasons. Wake Forest canned Dino Gaudio in hoops for making the tournament for a few straight years, and now they are one of the worst programs in the ACC. Firing Solich was a disaster (Steve Pederson!) for Nebraska considering how Bill Callahan followed him.

So yeah, I am nervous at the notion about getting rid of Dixon sometime in the next few years. Pitt basketball found a solid niche in the Big East, and they haven't gotten there yet in the ACC. Pitt could bring in a guy that's awesome to succeed Dixon and he sparks the program, or they could end up with a guy that kind of tanks and takes years to rebuild and loses the fan base.  There isn't an exact science to getting rid of your school's most successful coach.  Pitt basketball isn't Georgia Football or Indiana Basketball, it's a good but not great slam-dunk kind of job. Sean Miller isn't going to come running home or anything like that.

My best solution right now is bringing in new assistants and funding.  Scott Barnes has a basketball background, and he will likely be willing to work with Dixon rather than getting rid of him at least initially.  Pitt has committed more to athletics as it pertains to football the past few years, but it still wouldn't be cost effective to fire a guy with a contract until 2021. Pitt is kind of in a weird state right now, but they aren't 6-17 at the moment they are 17-6, sometimes we need to remember that.