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March 21, 2007

Had a great time at the Pitt-Tennessee women’s game last night. Great crowd (the place was about 80% full) and the actual gameplay is really solid. Candace Parker is the top player in the country, no doubt. The fact we were able to hang with a team like the Lady Vols was impressive and this Pitt program has a good future ahead of it.

Moving to tomorrow though. There’s actually going to be a basketball game played between all of the Howland-Dixon hype. Just as I wanted to play Duke, I’m also excited to play UCLA — a perennial and historically great program.

ESPN Insider (subscription…and what on ESPN.com isn’t subscription anymore?) breaks down the Bruins.

Offensive Preference The versatile Bruins are excellent in the halfcourt, with two guards who can score at the end of the shot clock. But they also pick their spots and run effectively, especially off turnovers.

Defensive Philosophy The Bruins’ success starts here with solid man-to-man defense. They rebound well, do not give up easy shots and have not allowed more than 75 points in a game all season. During one eight-game span, no UCLA opponent topped 62 points.

Secret Strength The Bruins led the Pac-10 in steals at nearly eight per game, a 50% increase over last year, indicating a more aggressive mindset on defense.

Achilles’ Heel The Bruins do not have great depth, and when Darren Collison was sidelined by injury at West Virginia, the thin bench cost them. Also, UCLA’s big men are poor foul shooters, which often forces them off the floor late in games.

Will Lose When … Through their first 29 games, the Bruins shot 50.4 percent in their 26 victories, just 41.1 percent in three defeats. With their defense, if the Bruins make shots, they win.

By the way, and I’m just gonna throw this out there, UCLA’s Lorenzo Mata is the ugliest player in NCAA hoops.

I’m sick of writing about Dixon-Howland and Howland leaving Pitt. I suspect most of you are sick of reading about it. I still feel somewhat obligated to note them, so here’s the deal. I’m just going to give straight links to the articles on the subjects and you can read them on your own. And let’s let it die in the comments.

Joe Starkey at the Trib. looks further back to their old mentor at UCSB, Jerry Pimm.

Bill Wirtz at the LA Daily News looks at the friendship. Probably the only must read — the UCLA job apparently cost Howland a couple other coaching friends. Also something from Pimm about the way Dixon observes what goes on in practices.

Rather stock piece in the Orange County Register.

Moving on.

If anyone happens to have a paid subscription to the Vancouver Province let me know. I’m curious about the rest of this article on Levon Kendall that starts out this way.

But it’s a qualified success so it’s fair to criticize University of Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon for not using Levon Kendall to his full potential.

Reads like someone from his hometown expected Kendall to be the focal point of the offense.

Just an observation, but Gray hurting his ankle a few weeks ago may have been the best thing for Kendall on offense. Since that point, he’s been much more assertive and shooting a lot better/with more confidence. It seems that once he had to step up on offense — and he did — he kept it going even after Gray got back.

Of course, the worst thing for Gray was his horrible game in the Big East Championship. Everyone has bagged on him since. Even in his hometown paper.

I think Pitt’s Aaron Gray, the Emmaus product, has to prove himself all over again after that disastrous Big East championship game. And he next faces UCLA big men Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata ? both shorter than him, but more athletic. The kind of guys he will see on a nightly basis next year, in other words.

Pitt was able to get to the West Coast a day earlier.

Pitt planned to leave Tuesday for its game with UCLA on Thursday in San Jose, Calif. But a set of circumstances allowed the Panthers to catch a chartered jet one day earlier. The thanks goes to the Florida State women’s basketball team. Florida State played at Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament last night. The plane to retrieve the No. 10 seed team was sent Monday. With an empty jet heading to the West Coast, Pitt offered to hop a ride. “There are not a lot of planes available,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “So we jumped on it and got it for cheap.” The early departure allows Pitt to acclimate itself to the time change and gets the Panthers out of Petersen Events Center, where the Panthers haven’t been able to use their own locker room or main floor due to the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

Every little thing helps. Plus, an extra day on the West Coast in March versus being in Pittsburgh. Hey, I know I’d prefer it.

Howland says his last Pitt team was more physical than his current UCLA team. I’m not sure he actually believes it so much as the usual coaching mind games to motivate his present players to go hard and tough at Pitt on Thursday.

So Keith Benjamin may be right about the premium on scoring.

“We’re definitely trying to take that next step,’’ Benjamin said. “I talked to a lot of the former players … and everybody’s pushing for us to do it. I think it’s going to be a low-scoring game, a great defensive game, unless one of the teams can get some transition points. But neither one of us like to give up those, so it’s just going to be a great game.

“It might be the first to 50, maybe 40 the way they played the other night, but this is the challenge that we have to meet if we’re going to be great. … If anything is going to be done from us in this game, we have to establish Aaron early, from the opening tipoff. And he has to decide what we do, but I think Aaron’s going to do a good job and lead us in this game.’’

Still 36 hours or more away.

In the brief moments when my thoughts turn to spring football practice, I really can’t tell you which chills me to the bone more: a completely new, inexperienced set of linebackers starting and being taught and coached directly by Paul Rhoads or the idea of relying more on the D-line.

The Pitt coach placed the onus not on the linebackers but instead the players forming the front four, where seven of the top eight players in the rotation return.

“It’s important for our defensive line to have a big spring,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to see if this theory that I believe is real comes true: Would you rather be replacing your whole defensive line or your linebackers? I’d rather be replacing the linebackers.

“We’ve gone through that the last couple years where we’ve had real young defensive linemen and All-American linebackers, and it hasn’t been good enough.”

The back room where my home office is very cold in the mornings. So why are my palms sweating? Ah, I know I’m being too hard on them — old habits die hard when the topic of the D-line is mentioned. And really, that was just prelude. The topic really shifts back to the linebacker corp. Where the emphasis seems to be on just having “football players” at the linebacker spots.

The next came when sophomore Dorin Dickerson switched from tailback to weak-side linebacker. Safeties Jemeel Brady and Shane Murray also were moved to outside linebacker spots. Grayshirt Justin Hargrove, recruited as a defensive end, is playing middle linebacker.

And they are being taught, not by a linebacker coach, but by a guy who specializes in the secondary. Damn that stomach virus I have. That must have been why my stomach just sent stuff upwards.

“If we walked next door to the Steelers and said, ‘Draw me your perfect linebacker,’ they’d draw up somebody with his measurements and speed,” Wannstedt said of Dickerson. “Now, we’ve got to get him caught up with experience. I think the want-to is there. It will be interesting to see.”

Dickerson agreed to the move with the promise that if it doesn’t work out he can return to offense. For now, he’s as anxious as everyone else to see how the transition goes.

“We’ll see what happens,” Dickerson said. “I haven’t tackled in a while, since high school. I’ll see if I can get my form back.”

He sounds fully committed to playing the position.

It it at all matters, almost the entire linebacking group comes from the WPIAL.

It’s an eclectic group, as linebackers go. Rhoads mentioned how Dickerson, being converted from tailback, may be the most athletically blessed of the bunch.

Rhoads said Nix may be the most raw — “wrong on two of three snaps, but he’s going to make a play on one.” He likened Murray to Nix, a pure football player who switched from quarterback to safety to linebacker, even though he “isn’t big enough to play linebacker. He’s not fast enough to play anything. But he … makes plays.”

He compared Webster to Blades in regard to being a “natural linebacker,” though Webster is dealing with Crohn’s disease and “isn’t close to being 100 percent.” He spoke of Scott McKillop owning the most experience and size of this crew.

On the bright side, my expectations are real low, so they may actually meet them.

Other position changes include seeing Derrell Jones move from offensive line (guard) to the defensive line (defensive tackle) after dropping 42 pounds. Freshman receiver Aaron Smith is moving to cornerback.

Talking about the corner spot, obviously Pitt needs to replace Darrelle Revis. Aaron Berry hopes to be that guy.

“I like having that kind of pressure put on me,” said Berry, who also could fill Revis’ role as the Panthers’ primary punt returner. “I know I have big shoes to fill but I look at it like this — I want to be just like him, I want to be a first-round draft pick some day, too, and I am glad I had a year to watch and learn from him.”

[Secondary Coach Chris] Ball said Berry likely benefitted from watching Revis play last season.

“As coaches, we can talk about working hard and push them but that only goes so far,” Ball said. “But when you have a guy like a Darrelle Revis as a role model, then as coaches we can say, ‘You want to be in the NFL, you want to be a high pick, look at him, that’s what it takes to get there.’ That makes a big difference and really leaves a big impression on the younger guys.”

Berry was one of those kids from Wannstedt’s first full recruiting class that is supposed to be a very good player.

On a down note, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Dave Weber is on permanent medical redshirt. He has a knee condition that effectively ends his career before it ever started.

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