This is the first in a series of visits with major college basketball coaches as they prepare their programs for the 2014-15 season.
True, Jamie Dixon’s teams have never broken through for a deep NCAA tournament run – the program still owns just one Final Four appearance, in 1957 – but give the man credit for consistency. Pittsburgh has only missed the NCAA tournament once in Dixon’s 11-year tenure.
Last season, the Panthers blitzed Colorado in their second-round game before bowing out to top-seeded Florida, 61-45. Dixon’s inability to sign one-and-done-level players may have hampered his ability to crack the Final Four ceiling, but it also means that his floor never gets too low. Such will be the case again next season. “We lost two good players,” Dixon told me. “But that’s all we lost.”
Given that those two players, forwards Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, were the team’s top two scorers and rebounders, replacing them won’t be so easy. The Panthers’ strength will begin with their veteran backcourt of 6-6 junior Durand Johnson and 6-5 senior Cameron Wright. Johnson was the team’s third-leading scorer last season until he tore his ACL in January, robbing the Panthers of one of their most reliable outside threats. Dixon told me that Johnson’s rehab was coming along nicely but that he won’t be able to play during the team’s exhibition tour of the Bahamas in early August.
From there, Dixon can choose from a long list of versatile wings to round out his lineup. Chief among them is sophomore forward Sheldon Jeter, a 6-8 junior college transfer who began his college career at Vanderbilt. Dixon’s scouting report on Jeter: “Very athletic, shoots it pretty well, good length.”
After Jeter, 6-7 sophomore Jamel Artis, 6-9 sophomore Mike Young and 6-6 sophomore Chris Jones will also compete for playing time. Dixon will have good depth at point guard with 6-3 junior James Robinson, who started all 36 games last year, and 6-1 sophomore Josh Newkirk, who was pressed into more playing time because of Johnson’s knee injury. The biggest question will be at center, which could result in a smaller, sleeker lineup than what we’ve seen from Pitt in the past.
“We’ve never had so many guys who are 6-7, 6-8 who are interchangeable,” Dixon said. “We’re gonna look to press a little more. We’ve got skilled guys, but we’ve got to get better defensively. Everybody talks about our defense, but our offense been in the top of the efficiency rankings for the last two or three years.”
I asked Dixon how different it felt to be competing in the ACC for the first time last season. He said that while the games didn’t feel all that different – “There are seven teams from the Big East in there; it’s like a merger” – he did acknowledge that it has helped his recruiting. Newkirk, for example, chose Pitt over Miami, Georgia Tech and Florida State after North Carolina and North Carolina State passed on him. (He is from Raleigh.) “No way we get him if we’re in the Big East,” Dixon said.
I also mentioned to Dixon that last spring marked the first time in a long time that his name wasn’t linked to vacancies at other schools. Part of that is because it was a moderately quiet coaching carousel – especially in southern California, where Dixon grew up – but also because people are starting to figure out that Dixon likes coaching at Pitt and isn’t looking to jump ship. “I just think when you recruit kids and tell ’em you’re going to be their coach for four years, it should mean something,” he said.
Finally, I had to press Dixon on his much-criticized scheduling philosophy. Last season, Pitt’s nonconference schedule was ranked 215th in the country. Its best win outside the ACC came over Stanford on a neutral court. Dixon managed to defend himself without sounding defensive. Mostly, he sounded surprised – and flattered – that his program was being held to the same standard as bluebloods like Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas, which regularly put together murderous nonconference slates.
To be fair, Dixon has regularly entered Pitt in a high-end early season tournament like the Maui Invitational, which it is playing in next season. When a coach commits to those events, he usually does not know which other teams will be in the field. Also, like the rest of the coaches in the ACC, Dixon has no say in which opponents his team will face in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Last year, the Panthers played Penn State, which they beat at home, 78-69. “If we get Michigan for that game, people look at our schedule differently,” he said.
There’s also the annual game against Duquesne, which Dixon rightly feels obligated to play. Beyond that, well, it’s not like teams are itching to schedule home-and-home series to visit the Petersen Events Center, where Pitt has compiled one of the top five home winning percentages in the country. Dixon laughed as he recounted a conversation he had last year with a Big East coach whom he'd called to try to set up a home-and-home series. “How many times do I have to tell you?” the coach replied. “We’re not f------ playing you.”
I get that the ACC is a bear, especially given that two of Pitt’s permanent partners inside the league moving forward are Syracuse and Louisville, meaning they will play each other twice each season. Still, if you want to be considered an elite program, you have to put together an elite schedule. Dixon needs to do better in this regard. Time to raise the floor, Jamie.