Men’s Basketball: Dixon will have to lead from the bench to start the season

By Jay Huerbin

In March, the Pitt basketball team stood on the court, shocked that they had just fallen to the… In March, the Pitt basketball team stood on the court, shocked that they had just fallen to the Villanova Wildcats in the Elite Eight. With a half of a second left in the game, Wildcats’ guard Scottie Reynolds hit a two-point jumper to give his team a 76-74 lead and send the then-No. 1 Panthers home from the NCAA Tournament.

It was the end of the season for a team that had national championship dreams.

With the defeat, there was no more Levance Fields. There was no more Sam Young. And, as fans found out following the NBA Draft, there was no more DeJuan Blair.

Heading into the 2009-10 campaign, there was only one returning starter, as Tyrell Biggs also graduated. Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon, a junior college transfer last year, is also one of two seniors on the team. The other, Chase Adams, transferred from Centenary College in Louisiana over the summer.

That’s two seniors and only one year of combined playing experience with Pitt’s basketball system. But that doesn’t bother Dixon, who has quickly earned respect from his coaches and teammates.

“I definitely feel comfortable [with a leadership role],” Dixon said. “The players that left last year — even DeJuan as a sophomore — I learned a lot from them.”

Last year, Dixon and the Panthers finished with 28-3 regular season record and entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. That was supposed to be the year Pitt made it past the Sweet 16 and into the national title game.

So Dixon, who finished second in steals for the Panthers last season, has left the past behind him and is focusing on what the team can accomplish in the future.

“Same expectations,” he said simply. “We want to win a Big East championship, and we want to win a national championship. It’s all possible … and I think we can do it with the talent we have.”

But Dixon might have to wait a few more weeks before he can get back on the court. During the summer, he suffered two different — but related — injuries to his right foot. Playing in a Pittsburgh summer league with other Pitt, Duquesne and Robert Morris players, Dixon suffered a hairline fracture in his right foot sometime in mid-July.

Less than three months later, he had surgery again. Both injuries sidelined him for eight weeks, but his return to the court is expected sometime in December — just in time for Big East play.

With the injury preventing Dixon from practicing, he’s working hard to return as soon as possible, and it is slowing him down from becoming a leader on a young team.

He said he spoke with Fields, who was in a situation like Dixon’s at the beginning of last year, on Facebook and Skype. Fields told him to stay involved with the team and keep the players focused.

“[Levance] basically told me to keep working hard and to push the other guys to do the same,” Dixon said. “He told me to be a sideline coach and cheerleader for the team.”

The advice Fields gave Dixon stems from a relationship that the two built last season. And even though one graduated and is now playing professionally in Russia, the coaching staff isn’t surprised by the connection between the two players as Dixon becomes the new leader of the team.

“They were friends last year and really hit it off when [Jermaine] got here,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “I think it may be more common in our program with having older players come back and stay in touch win the team.

“He’s really interesting in that he had an immediate respect of his teammates last year when he arrived. That’s hard to do, especially coming from junior college, but he saw a role, and he saw what was needed and he relished in that and took it on.”

Dixon came to Pitt after his sophomore year at Tallahassee Community College in Florida. After two seasons at his junior college, he left with 1,050 career points and ranked among school leaders in points per game (18.1), total field goals (372) and steals (142).

Despite individual success only two seasons into his college career, it wasn’t a surprise to the coaching staff to see him come to Pitt.

“[Jermaine] came here for the right reasons,” Dixon said. “He wanted to win and play in a program that was going to be successful. He’s physically tough, and he’s mentally tough. And those things were evident pretty early whenever he came here.”

A guard who plays primarily on the outside, Dixon had a strong junior year with the Panthers. Playing in 36 games, he finished the year averaging 8.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game and finished with 51 steals.

His coach said that Jermaine’s performance on the court is a result of his efforts off the court.

“Last year, he worked really hard,” Dixon said. “Early in the season he struggled shooting the ball but really put in the extra time before and after practice. It showed as his 3-point shooting got a lot better as the season went on.”

But coaches weren’t the only people who noticed Dixon’s play and evolution into a leader for the team. Redshirt freshman Travon Woodall, a guard who sat out last season to extend his NCAA eligibility, said that Dixon brought a lot to the team last season, despite it being his fist year on the team.

“We got Jermaine as a leader,” Woodall said. “He does a great job of showing the younger guys last year … and I think that’s going to help eliminate that margin for error.”

That’s good news for Panthers fans who have high expectations for Dixon this season. But just as others hope to see Dixon excel on the court, he is holding high standards for himself.

“I’ve been in this role before,” Dixon said about his time in junior college. “And I take it up as a challenge.”