March Madness: Dixon building a program, exceding expectations — year after year

By Lauren Kirschman

When the Pittsburgh Panthers entered the 2001-02 season, nobody expected them to finish like… When the Pittsburgh Panthers entered the 2001-02 season, nobody expected them to finish like they did.

A year after making a run to the Big East tournament championship game and playing in the National Invitational Tournament, the Pitt men’s basketball team was picked as a middle-of-the-pack Big East squad.

But by the end of the season, the Panthers were the Big East regular-season champions. They advanced to the Big East tournament championship game for the second straight year and made a trip to NCAA Sweet Sixteen as a No. 3 seed.

Brandin Knight, now an assistant coach for Pitt, was the team’s star junior point guard. He was named Big East Co-Player of the Year and Big East Most Improved Player at the end of the season. Then-Head Coach Ben Howland was the Big East Coach of the Year.

The next year, the Panthers were named Big East tournament champions and once again advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

But many thought that Pitt’s run was over after that season. Howland left to become the head coach at UCLA. The team lost an All-American in Knight, as well as seniors Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett.

The Panthers were picked to finish fourth in the conference in 2003-04.

Instead, Jamie Dixon was promoted from assistant coach to head coach. Julius Page and Jaron Brown, as well as new starting point guard Carl Krauser, guided the Panthers to another Big East Conference regular season title, a third straight appearance in the Big East tournament championship game and a third consecutive Sweet Sixteen.

Dixon, in his first year as head coach, was named Big East Coach of the Year following that season.

Since that year, the Panthers have played in five NCAA tournaments and three Big East tournament championship games, with one more title. They added a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2006-07 and advanced to the Elite Eight last season.

Entering this season, the Panthers have the highest winning percentage of any Big East team (.797). Pitt is also the third winningest program in the country over that time period, trailing only Kansas and Duke.

The Panthers progressed from a good team in 2001-02, to one of the most consistent programs in the country over the past eight years.

They’ve done it without the highest-ranked players. Often, with the notable exception of last season, they’ve done it without national superstars.

In fact, freshman Dante Taylor is Pitt’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American. DeJuan Blair was Pitt’s first AP First Team All-American since 1958.

But there’s linkage with the Pitt program: When one player graduates, another is ready to take his place. The point guard position was handed down from Knight to Krauser to Levance Fields to Ashton Gibbs. At center, Chris Taft, Aaron Gray, Blair and Gary McGhee followed Lett.

From 2000 to this season, five Pitt players have been named Big East Most Improved Player: Ricardo Greer (2000), Knight (2002), Krauser (2004), Gray (2006), Sam Young (2008) and Gibbs (2010).

The Panthers groom their players while they are waiting in the wings. What is a breakout season for the rest of the country is only expected from Pitt’s players and coaches.

Prior to this season, Head Coach Jamie Dixon said, “This team can be as good as any team we’ve had. No one thinks it outside here. I know what everyone is writing. But we don’t play the games on paper, we play them on the court.”

At the time, nobody really believed him. After all, the Panthers lost four starters from the team that went 31-5 and advanced to the Elite Eight. But on the court, Pitt barely missed a beat — the Panthers simply continued the success they started eight years ago.

Picked to finish ninth in the 16-team conference, Pitt finished second. Many experts predicted Pitt would play in the NIT this season, but the Panthers received their ninth-straight NCAA tournament bid on Sunday — the longest streak in the Big East.

The Panthers reinvented themselves, transforming from the high-scoring, star-laden team from last year into a squad focused more on performing on the defensive end — it’s a flashback to the Pitt teams of the early 2000s.

The coaches know how to get the Panthers to play to their strengths.

“We’ve always had guys elevating their games and surprising people,” Jamie Dixon said before the start of this season. “I anticipate that happening again, although I don’t know who it will be. I’m sure it will be a couple guys. They are ready for that opportunity.”

Dixon was right. This season, it was Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and McGhee who notably rose to the challenge for the Panthers.

Gibbs led the team with 16.2 points per game after averaging 4.3 points last season. Wanamaker improved his scoring average from 5.8 to 11.1 points per game. Early in the season, Gibbs and Wanamaker often carried the full weight of Pitt’s offense.

McGhee stepped in to fill the center position vacated by Blair. He went from averaging 6.7 minutes, 1.2 points and 1.5 rebounds last season to contributing 7 points and 6.9 rebounds in 23.2 minutes a game.

After the Panthers defeated Lousiville in overtime earlier this season, senior Jermaine Dixon reminded outsiders that to Pitt, the success wasn’t a surprise. There are players in the program who competed every day against the players from last year.

Pitt isn’t just a team. It’s a program.

“When a lot of people were counting us out, we knew we were ready to play and that we could play with any team in the country,” Jermaine Dixon said then. “We work hard in and out of practice and we have an unbelievable chemistry.”