Sweet science

Pitt again in top 16 but is fighting to reach Final Four

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / March 25, 2009
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Pittsburgh knows the question is coming.

When you've won 25 games or more in seven of the last eight years, and when you've had a 2 seed and three 3 seeds without once being able to get to the Round of 8, you know what people are going to ask now that you're 30-4 and a No. 1 seed.

"Hey! You guys finally going to stop fooling around and get yourselves into the Final Four or what?"

But before coach Jamie Dixon answers that question, he wants to say something on behalf of his program.

"We've made it seem a little easier than it is," maintains Dixon, whose team faces Xavier tomorrow night at TD Banknorth Garden. "Only three teams have gotten there [the Sweet 16] more often than us in the last seven years.

"We've had success at it. We haven't had the run of a Florida, a Kansas, obviously, the teams that have won the national championship. And that separates you, there's no question. We can't put ourselves into that group until we do that.

"But at the same time, you do have to recognize what we have done. I think as far as number of wins in the NCAA Tournament, we're up there in the top seven or eight teams."

From the time Ben Howland got it going back in 2002- 03 with a 29-6 Sweet 16 team in the third of his four years at Pitt, this has been the greatest era in Pitt basketball. Pitt's worst year in the last eight was a 20-9 squad in 2004-05. And even that team got into the tournament.

And many people doubted - they'd better not deny it now - that Dixon was the guy to keep it going. He wasn't part of any Eastern cliques, for one thing. Howland had brought Dixon with him from Northern Arizona, and not many of the old Eastern guard ever had stood on a corner in downtown Flagstaff.

And wasn't Dixon, God forbid, a Californian? What do they know? Then what was this business about Jamie Dixon having been in cereal commercials or something as a kid? And doesn't he look like, well, a kid?

Well, let's see . . . 31-5, 20-9, 25-8, 29-8, 27-10, and now 30-4. Two Big East tournament championships. Six straight NCAA bids. This is the third Sweet 16. Maybe those California guys know something about basketball, after all. (Oh, and by the way, it turns out he actually was born in New York. The family moved.)

OK, so what is it? Why has such a consistently strong team not been able to sneak into at least one Elite 8, let alone a Final Four?

Here's one guess: offense. Specifically, lack of same.

Pitt has established itself during the Howland-Dixon Era as one of the most physical, aggressive, and defensive-minded teams in the country. You earn every point you get against the Panthers. But they haven't usually been offensive juggernauts, and in order to go far in the NCAA Tournament, you ordinarily have to get your share of easy baskets. True, Howland did get his UCLA team to the Final Four three years in a row, but once it got there, the lack of offensive sophistication resulted in ugly exits.

As for Dixon's squads, check out the losing scores in his five previous NCAAs: 65-54, 64-56, 72-66, 79-71, and 63-57. Averaging 61 points a game hasn't gotten it done.

Starry lineup
The 2008-09 Panthers appear to be cut from a very different cloth. These guys average a healthy 78 points a game. Last Sunday's 84-78 conquest of Oklahoma State was their 16th time cracking 80. They've gone over 90 six times, including one little run of three straight games.

"This is our best offensive team since I've been here," Dixon says. "We can put the ball in the basket. We're unselfish, and we've got balance inside and out. Our numbers kind of indicate that. I know they've got stats that show time of possession, and we've kind of been at the top of the country the entire year."

The inside part of that balance is one of America's great players. At 6 feet 7 inches and a listed 265 pounds, sophomore De Juan Blair is the best pure post player in the land, no question. There are other bodies similar to his, but no other such player is also gifted with three unteachable assets: great hands, quick feet, and extraordinarily quick vertical explosion.

He would be effective simply by virtue of his size and natural aggression, but he is a great player because he has these wonderful athletic gifts. Throw in high-level ambidexterity and you have someone who, when given the ball on the blocks, has a variety of ways to get the ball into the basket.

Credit Dixon and his staff for identifying and developing him.

"We saw the tools," Dixon says. "A lot of people didn't.

"He wasn't rated that high. But we saw something special in him. Certain things, his hands, his feel for the game, his vision, those are tools that he had that you just can't teach."

He's a double-double machine (how about 23-22 vs. Notre Dame and 22-23 vs. UConn?), but he isn't Pitt's leading scorer. Sam Young is, with 18 ppg. The smooth 6-6 forward spends a lot of games kind of slinking around, minding his own business, and taking his points as they come, but there are other occasions when he senses the need to take over. Last Sunday's Round 2 game against Oklahoma State was one of those games.

With Blair attracting the attention of several Cowboys (one field goal attempt in the first half), Young put the Panthers in a position to be tied at intermission (49-49) by scoring 23 of his season-high 32. His display included mid-range twos, drives, and threes. There's no question he's an NBA player.

But a case can be made that neither of these young men is Pitt's MVP. That distinction very well may belong to senior Levance Fields, a powerfully built (5-10, 190ish) point guard who sometimes seems as if he were put on this earth solely to make big plays. Finally healthy after dealing with injuries this season (the most recent a pulled groin), he assumed control of a tight game last Sunday with a tie-breaking drive, a clever assist to Young for a three, and his own killer right-corner three.

Pitt cannot beat quality teams unless Fields is 100 percent, which is why Dixon is optimistic about Pitt's immediate future.

"I think he's getting back to where he wants to be and where he's going to be," Dixon said after the Oklahoma State game.

"I mean, nine assists, two turnovers, and he's playing much better defense down the stretch. I think he's defending well, and that's really been big for us."

Close calls
Now the truth is that had No. 16 seed East Tennessee State made a few uncontested layups or been somewhat better from the free throw line (12 for 24), Pitt would have been excoriated for making negative NCAA history. The Panthers also know that, to advance, they will need a better all-around game than the one they had on display against Oklahoma State. A team this skilled shouldn't need two wakeup calls.

"Yeah, first of all, we can't take every game lightly," Fields said following the East Tennessee scare. "And, second of all, we know now that every game is going to be like that. Every team is going to give us their best."

Sounds great, but the Panthers then went out and cut it very close against an undersized Oklahoma State team.

There is great local pressure on this team because the recent success has made it the equivalent of a pro franchise in a city lacking NBA basketball. The Panthers have sold out every game in the 12,508-seat Petersen Events Center since it opened in 2002 (and where they are 99-10) and they have developed a rabid following that far transcends Pitt alumni.

This is the best team in Pitt history and this is the Last Chance Saloon for Messrs. Young and Fields, two high-quality seniors.

Pitt has done all this to itself by raising the bar so very high. Duke, Villanova, and Xavier can afford to fall short. They are all playing with house money here. But the Pitt Panthers must understand that if they do not at least make it to the Final Four, there is a question they will be hearing all spring, summer, and perhaps for the rest of their lives.

"Hey! What happened?"

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