Recruiting still a battle for Dixon

By Jay Huerbin

Just 10 years ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team failed to reach either the NIT or NCAA… Just 10 years ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team failed to reach either the NIT or NCAA tournaments. The program was down, struggled to bring in top recruits and was looking to rebuild. On Jan. 11 the Panthers entered a game against St. John’s with something it never had before: a No. 1 ranking. The program had successfully turned. But despite Pitt’s recent success, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is in an ongoing battle to get top recruits who can help continue that success. ‘The reality is that through all of this stuff,’ said Dixon, ‘we’re still going through the same challenges to get kids here.’ And this battle takes place right in Pitt’s backyard. ‘These kids grew up in the Big East area and want to play in the Big East,’ said Dixon. ‘They want to play in front of their family and hometown crowd.’ Dixon explained that the biggest obstacle to overcome in recruiting is location. He said that as a coach, it’s important to look for talent within the Big East and ACC region. The players, who grew up in these areas, agreed. ‘I was getting recruited by a lot of the Big East schools,’ said freshman guard Ashton Gibbs. ‘You can’t really go wrong going into the Big East if you’re from New Jersey.’ Gibbs went to high school 20 miles outside of New York City in West Orange, N.J. He said that while undecided, he was in communication with Pitt’s coaching staff on a regular basis ‘mdash; a common practice for teams. ‘The coaching staff started recruiting me my freshman and sophomore year of high school,’ said Gibbs. ‘I had a good relationship with [current assistant coach] Brandin Knight and that helped.’ Along with Gibbs, junior guard Jermaine Dixon said that he was also recruited by the two conferences. His decision to choose Pitt, though, was based on location and the type of tradition Pitt is building. ‘Other than Maryland, Pitt was the closest school that I could go to,’ said Dixon, who grew up in Baltimore. ‘[Associate men’s head basketball coach Tom] Herrion and I started clicking early on, and I liked what he was saying. Pitt seemed like a good choice.’ After high school, Dixon played basketball at Tallahassee Community College in Florida. He said he began receiving phone calls from the Pitt coaching staff in January 2008. And a month later he found himself committing to the Panthers. ‘I liked what [Coach Dixon] was saying, and I like the program he was putting together,’ he said. As a younger coach, Dixon said his involvement with recruits is higher than other coaches in college basketball. And although he said he didn’t change too much with recruiting when he became head coach, he is always trying to keep up with the process. ‘It’s changed so much,’ he said. ‘It used be about home and campus visits, but those things are almost non-existent anymore. The kids commit before those things can even get done.’ Along with taking on the issue of proximity for recruits, the college must follow strict NCAA regulations. If a school violates current recruiting policies, it faces punishment that ranges from losses in scholarship money to banishment from the NCAA Tournament. Currently, the NCAA regulations allow colleges to make only one phone call per month during a recruit’s sophomore and junior year of high school. During a player’s senior year, programs can contact the recruit no more than twice a week. That’s just one of the hundreds of rules that can cause problems for any coach or program. But while all schools have to deal with the rules, certain programs get a head start because of their history and tradition. That’s how it is for the Duke Blue Devils. ‘Recruits have seen our players over the years in [high quality] situations,’ said David Bradley, Duke’s recruiting coordinator. ‘And having that type of recognition at the start of the recruiting process certainly helps.’ Entering this current season, the Blue Devils have been coached by what Bradley calls a ‘household name,’ in Mike Krzyzewski ‘mdash; or just Coach K. And when Duke reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll this year, Krzyzewski became the only coach in NCAA history to take his team to the top-ranked spot 13 times. Bradley said that it could take time for a program to develop into a perennial powerhouse. But when it does develop, a school’s tradition is an important piece for recruits when they’re deciding between schools. ‘I think if you asked Duke players past and present why they chose Duke, they would say Coach K,’ said Bradley. Pitt, as well as Duke, works early with recruits to establish a good relationship with the players. The coaching staff uses phone calls and e-mails as well as official and unofficial visits to get recruits to come to Pitt. This year, that constant attention to recruiting helped the Panthers reach the No.1 spot for the first time in school history. It’s something that has catapulted the team into the spotlight as a national champion contender. For the players, they’re happy to be part of the Pitt tradition over the past eight years. Jermaine Dixon, who has earned a starting job this season, believes that as Pitt stays at the top of college basketball, the top recruits will start playing for the Panthers. ‘Coach Dixon did a good job of picking up players that are not at the top of the recruiting class, but still good players,’ said Dixon. ‘I’m pretty sure they’ll start going after the high-ranking players and they’ll start getting them to come here.’ Most of the starred rankings come from two primary Web sites that cover college basketball: and These sites evaluate a prospect’s skills, speed, strength and other characteristics to give the recruit a ranking of 1-5. But, as a coach, Dixon said there is more to recruiting than just getting five-star recruits to sign with the school. He said it’s important to find athletes that want to get better, while also succeeding academically. ‘Character isn’t counted in any of those rankings and neither is academics,’ said Dixon. ‘Those are important backgrounds that get left out.’ Still, the Panthers are beginning to see the signs of success within the ranking system. In 2007, Pitt signed Brad Wanamaker and DeJuan Blair ‘mdash; both highly touted out of high school. Blair was a four-star recruit according to, while had him ranked as a five-star. Blair has emerged as one of the faces of the Pitt program. Wanamaker, a four-star recruit according to both recruiting services, has been an integral part of Pitt’s bench this season. This year, the Panthers received a commitment from forward Dante Taylor ‘mdash; a five-star recruit from Maryland. Taylor is rated as one of Pitt’s best recruits in history. As the coach who is doing much of the recruiting himself, Dixon said that in recent years, a lot of players are starting to buy into his system and see a great opportunity at Pitt. ‘We’re starting to get the best kids and the best players, and our record speaks to that,’ said Dixon. ‘It’s a story that writes itself.’