Jamie Dixon does it again! The Pitt Panthers are currently a red hot 4-0 in arguably the toughest, and unquestionably the deepest, conference in college basketball.
Tonight, in the latest chapter of, "The Most Underrated Rivalry in College Basketball," the gritty Panthers flat out took it to the soft and seemingly uninterested Huskies.
UConn, coming off an embarrassing loss to Georgetown in which they relinquished a 15 point halftime lead, followed it up by simply not showing up until around the midway point of the second half. Huskie standout Jerome Dyson displayed about as much emotion as Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He looked like a player who cared more about which Huskette he would "pick up" after the game.
Dyson's counterpart, rising star Ashton Gibbs, may not get the same national acclaim as Dyson (yet?), but I would take him as my point guard everyday of the week and twice on Sunday. He played with the heart of a lion from start to finish, diving all over the floor for loose balls, hitting huge shots in big moments, basically everything you ask for in a leader.
Gibbs finished with 19 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, and 2 STL compared to Dyson's 14 PTS (at least four of which came in mop up time), 1 REB, and 3 AST.
This past summer, Dixon was appointed head coach of the U-19 National Team. Upon UConn Guard Kemba Walker declining an invitation to join the roster, Dixon "stuck his neck on the line" and lobbied hard for an unknown Gibbs to be added. The experience seems to have been a large stepping stone in Gibb’s development as a player, and is paying dividends early on (Dixon and Gibbs left the tournament with a Gold Medal).
Dixon, Pitt's head coach since 2003, has the highest winning percentage of any current Big East coach at just over 70 percent. Tonight, his game plan was nothing short of brilliant: Slow down the speed of UConn's high powered offense and attack the Huskies inexperienced big men, driving to the hole at every opportunity.
In the first possession of the game, Brad Wanamaker sliced through the heart of the UConn defense with little resistance, setting an early tone. Wanamaker finished with 19 points, shooting 9 for 10 from the line including four straight to ice the game. Overall, the Panthers finished with 20 free throws attempts to the Huskies 13.
Another theme of the contest was Pitt's ability to take advantage of their small lineup. After 6'10" Gary McGhee, the Panthers starters stand at 6'5", 6'4", 6'3", and 6'2". UConn starts three players over 6'9".
Dixon countered their height, lining up four players around the perimeter, forcing one of the UConn big men to constantly vacate his comfort zone. Whether it was Edwards, Oriakhi, or Okwandu, a Pitt swingman was consistently beating them off the dribble attacking the rim. Good things generally happen when teams attack the rim.
On the flip side, one would expect the Huskies to use their size as an advantage by pounding the ball down low as often as possible. Unfortunately for UConn fans, their beloved Huskies played softer than a bathtub full of cotton balls tonight. Even with a serious height disadvantage, Pitt had the rebounding edge, 36-31.
Dixon's defensive focus of slowing down UConn's guards worked about as well as can be hoped. Walker and Dyson, while having off nights, are extremely talented players. The Huskies have scored more than 60 points in every game this season (averaging 73.3).
Pitt held them to 57. This was in large part due to the presence of McGhee, who finished with 9 REB and 2 BLK, being called an offensive lineman by Fran Fraschilla. Defensive lineman is probably more appropriate, but it’s easy to understand what he meant.
The contrast between coaches Jamie Dixon and Jim Calhoun was on display in Hartford. It would not be a stretch to say that in any given year UConn has upwards of six future NBA players, while Pitt will be lucky to have two. Despite a clear disparity in talent and athletic ability, Pitt was able to win this game with heart, determination, and by playing team basketball.
This all comes from coaching. Since 2002, Pitt is 8-6 against UConn. I do not believe it is a stretch to say that Jamie Dixon is every bit the coach that future Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun is. Calhoun may get the recruits, but after watching Pitt vs. UConn, Dixon has his players playing hard and playing for each other. Pitt doesn’t get the Okafor's or Gordon's, but Dixon continues to excel with maximizing his players potential.
2009-2010 was supposed to be a down year for Dixon and Pitt. They lost four key players including First Team All-American DeJuan Blair. Yet, Pitt is once again atop the Big East.
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