Men’s Basketball: Dixon, Pitt hope pluck thorn from side at Notre Dame


By Ryan Bertonaschi / Staff Writer

After transitioning from the Big East to the ACC, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has continued building on an impressive resumé that few college basketball coaches can top.

Deemed Madison Square Garden’s College Basketball “Coach of the Decade,” Dixon left the Big East Conference as its winningest coach in history (.658), and he holds the all-time NCAA Division I record for most wins after eight seasons as a head coach in 2011 (216).

But if there is one ghost that haunted him during Big East play, it was Notre Dame.

Dixon and the Panthers haven’t seemed to figure out a way to beat Notre Dame (15-14, 6-10 ACC), who hosts Pitt (21-7, 9-6 ACC) tomorrow at 2 p.m.

The last time Pitt beat Notre Dame was in the 2008-2009 season, and the last time Pitt beat the Irish in the Joyce Center was March 5, 2005, behind 26 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks from then-sophomore center Chris Taft.

But this season, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey and his team have run into some identity problems, as the Fighting Irish have been often out-drawn in ticket sales by their women’s basketball team, ranked second in the country with a 27-0 record this season.

“We are who we are right now,” a deflated Brey said to reporters after Notre Dame’s 70-49 loss at Virginia last week.

Notre Dame entered the season ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press poll, but leading scorer and floor general Jerian Grant was dismissed from the team in December because of an academic issue. The team has struggled ever since.

The Irish have used 11 different starting lineups this season, including a different starting five in each of the past three games. They beat Georgia Tech 65-62 on Wednesday but lost consecutive games to No. 12 Virginia and Miami before that.

Brey has used a 2-3 zone at times this season, and he went with the zone Wednesday to rattle the Yellow Jackets. Pitt, meanwhile, has somewhat struggled against 2-3 zones, especially when forward Lamar Patterson is on the bench.

“What helped us was we changed defenses and played some zone,” Brey said to reporters after Wednesday’s victory, his 300th win at Notre Dame. “We always run a little better out of zone, and so we got some transition opportunities. It got them out of the rhythm they were in, and we were able to get out and run.”

Against the zone, Patterson has said and has proven he is most effective in the middle.

Playing against the zone could help Patterson’s chances for becoming just the third player in Pitt history to total 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists in a career. He needs four assists to achieve that feat.

The Irish are led in scoring by center Garrick Sherman (13.6 points per game), forward Pat Connaughton (13.5) and point guard Eric Atkins (13.4), who have started all 29 games for the Irish.

Sherman, a senior, is fifth in the ACC with 7.5 rebounds per game. He sustained a chip fracture in his right little finger against Clemson two weeks ago, but has played through the injury and helped the Irish with 21 points and five rebounds against Georgia Tech.

“It was so good to see [Sherman] back in a rhythm,” Brey said to reporters. “Maybe he’s getting the feel of playing with the brace on and not distracted by it anymore.”

Freshman guard Steve Vasturia has started the past four games and nine overall throughout the season, and Brey has split starts at the forward position between sophomore Austin Burgett and senior Tom Knight.

With a win on Saturday, Pitt could total 10 or more league regular-season wins for the 12th time in 13 seasons.

But as Dixon has learned, nothing comes easy against the Irish. After last year’s matchup, Brey said that Notre Dame is in a “good rhythm” against Pitt, and that statement still stands true.

“I try not to over-analyze [the record against Pitt] too much because as soon as you do, then you lose four in a row to the team that you maybe just beat four in a row,” Brey said.

Pitt is coming off a win against ACC basement-dweller Boston College. The Panthers shot 50 percent (23-46) on the night, which was its best shooting contest in eight games, since they shot 51 percent at Maryland on Jan. 25.

And now that they’re faced with a team that always gives them trouble — and also plays a 2-3 zone — the Panthers might have found their rhythm just in time.