masthead.jpg, U3dpdGNo-a25, DIRECT, 14766, RESELLER, 30666, RESELLER, 5d62403b186f2ace, 1117, RESELLER, switchconcepts, RESELLER, switchconceptopenrtb, RESELLER, switchconcepts, RESELLER, 560031, RESELLER, 3160, RESELLER, switch, RESELLER, switchconcepts , RESELLER, 1934627955, RESELLER, switchconcepts, RESELLER, 59, RESELLER, 1356, RESELLER, 96786, RESELLER, fafdf38b16bf6b2b, 180008, RESELLER, 52853, RESELLER, 1058, RESELLER, pub-3515913239267445, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0
March 31, 2009

Semi-funny, but earlier today I was writing how the coaching carousel was in a tense pause while every coach was waiting to see what would happen with Calipari, Kentucky and Memphis. Now the carousel can go back to tilt-a-whirl.

Mike Anderson appears to be staying at Mizzou — rebuffing Georgia and a bigger offer. Presumably Memphis would be out for a chance at him as well.

Memphis will be left in ruins by the way. The expectations, money and fans may be there, but not the players. That’s the danger of a coach like Calipari. They don’t actually build a program. They build a cult of personality around themselves. In addition to the loss of recruits that haven’t signed yet, along with the recruits that had specific outs in their LOI’s if Calipari left. Tyreke Evans is one-and-done (to no one’s surprise), but there are also reports that Wesley Witherspoon, Roburt Sallie and Angel Garcia may be transferring. No Calipari, no team. It will be very interesting to see how that shakes out.

So Georgia is trolling for a coach and has $2 million to toss around. Arizona is still out there getting nervous as reality starts to dawn on them that they aren’t going to get Tom Izzo or Rick Pitino. Will anyone be able to lure Jeff Capel away from Oklahoma? Tim Floyd at USC is a perennial rumor to be moving.

That of course brings us to Coach Jamie Dixon. The fact is, Coach Dixon’s name is going to be mentioned a lot. He’s a very good coach. He’s still young enough, but with experience and success. He has proven to be a capable recruiter and a guy who hires the right assistants and develops players. He is not a Pitt alum or native to the area. That means programs are going to assume that he can and will sever ties for more money and what they may believe to be the better job.

I don’t know if Coach Dixon is going anywhere. I don’t want him going anywhere. I don’t think he will go anywhere. I don’t even want to worry about the “what ifs”. He’s in a good situation. He’s got a great relationship with both the AD and the Chancellor. There’s a lot more than money to keep him at Pitt.

That said, I expect him to listen if teams call. Not go, but listen. It is still in his best interest to at least listen. The Kentucky deal is another landscape changer. Just in terms of the money. That raises a lot of other pay checks. We are talking coaches and big egos. Dixon reportedly earns around $1.6 million. How do you not at least listen if a team might be  tossing $2 million or more your way?

I also don’t expect this to be over and done in just a few days. It will drag, and annoy. It will frustrate and there is a good chance we won’t know anything certain for at least a week. That’s the only thing I feel reasonably sure of knowing.

We can get all self-righteous about how he has a contract and should honor it. We can ask about how much money is enough? We can get arrogant and insist how Pitt is different and things are or should be done differently here. We can do all of that. It’s silly and a pile of crap.

We all know that this is the business side of it. We have all seen it every year in college football and basketball. It’s why so many programs get hung-up on the idea of alum or natives to the area. They want whatever perceived ties to make it more likely that the balance of power favors the school.

It may be the chosen vocation. It may pay extremely well. It may seem like a great job. But at the end of the day, it is still the job. The coaches know it can go up in smoke in just a couple bad years and you will never see the big money again. Then, maybe, you are back to being an assistant. Maybe making good money, but no where near the millions. The travel is that much harder, the contracts that much shorter.

So, brace yourself. Pitt will at least be on the periphery of the coaching carousel.

Blair’s Honors and Choices

Filed under: Basketball,Draft,Honors,Players — Chas @ 10:50 am

Congrats to DeJuan Blair for making the AP All-American 1st team.

The AP honor is the fourth first-team All-American honor for Blair, who also was recognized by Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and the United States Basketball Writers Association earlier this month.

“It’s cool; it’s a beautiful honor,” Blair said last night, two days after the Panthers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Villanova. “I don’t think anyone thought this was possible at the beginning of the season. I wasn’t even named [honorable mention] all-Big East.”

Blair finished third in the AP voting with 294 votes behind Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin (335) and North Carolina’s (304). Arizona State’s James Harden and Davidson’s Stephen Curry also were named to the first team.

“That group is an excellent group,” Blair said. “It could have been a lot of people on that list, too. Fortunately, I got that spot. It’s an honor to be on there with them. All of those guys lived up to the hype. I sneaked up there on a lot of people.”

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Blair, who also was named Big East Conference co-player of the year. He also is finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year Award, and was invited to Detroit this weekend for that presentation. He also is a finalist for the Wooden Award as well as the USBWA Oscar Robertson Player of the Year Award.

Well-earned and well-deserved. The article indicated something that should surprise no one. That Blair will at least go through the NBA pre-draft process.

I know there is some debate over whether Blair should turn pro or not. I do not, however, think that there is any debate that he should at least go through the process to see where might go in the draft and what he needs to improve.

I know the mock drafts to this point have him as a outside of being a lottery pick, but definitely a 1st round pick.  I also know the mock drafts pre-workouts are of some questionable value. That said, if he comes out of the workouts in a similar spot,  I don’t see how he doesn’t go pro.

As much as I would love for him to return, I fall into the camp that expects him to and thinks he should go pro. Blair benefits from the success of Detroit Piston’s Jason Maxiell not to mention Paul Millsap of the Utah Jazz. The Pistons took the undersized PF late in the first round of the ’05 draft (to the surprise of many who considered him a late 2nd rounder). He has become a vital bench player with energy who gets rebounds and plays inside despite his size.

Would Blair be able to improve on some parts of his game if he returns? Certainly. Of course, Blair has a great work ethic, so I would expect that he would do plenty to improve his game regardless.

The other aspect, is that while he might be able to improve his game with another year, that would not necessarily improve his draft status. This is considered a rather weak draft. I mean, that B.J. Mullens could be considered a first round pick (I know, 7’0″) after showing very little in the way of, um, skill should speak volumes about the draft this year.

Finally, with his past history of knee problems, he needs to consider the future. Given he plays inside, shown that he runs the court real well and his lack of natural height; a knee injury would cripple his future. Forget the NCAA insurance policies. That still doesn’t match the guarantee of a 1st round contract regardless of whether it is lottery or not.

March 30, 2009

I tried to put this off. I was fielding calls all Sunday morning from family calling to see if I was “okay,” and then proceed to talk about the game and make me relive the whole thing all over again. Whee. Then I used the excuse of watching the games yesterday, other writing elsewhere, and probably a few too many drinks. But I need to put the final stamp on the game and ultimately the season with a rundown of the stories afterwards.

Then it’s on to the off-season speculations, thoughts and spring football. Somehow that just seems completely lacking compared to being able watching Pitt continuing to play meaningful basketball in April.

I keep trying to at least keep perspective in that this goes down as one of the greatest games in the NCAA Tournament.

With a berth in the Final Four as the prize, Villanova and Pittsburgh waged a fierce, skilled, and dramatic battle that was not decided until Levance Fields’s attempt at a 75-footer hit the square above the rim and fell to the floor.

“When the ball left Levance’s hands,” said Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds, about and from whom more will be heard, “it was right on target. He gives a little less on that shot and we could be in another position right now.”

That position was a 78-76 victor. Villanova is going to the Final Four for the first time since an eerily similar Wildcats squad won it all in Lexington (the other one, silly) 24 years ago in a Final Four that featured three Big East teams. And if Louisville takes care of business today there will again be three Big East teams in the Final Four. But I can tell you right now none of them will have earned it more than Villanova.

I say this because the Wildcats had to beat Pitt, and they had to do it by making one more big play than a team that specializes in making big plays. Pitt is a team that lives famously on the edge. The Panthers had not had a smooth game in this tournament, but they had been able to out-tough and outfox the opposing team.

And the Panthers had come from 4 points down with 46.5 seconds to go, and again with 20 seconds left, tying the game on a pair of Fields free throws with 5.5 seconds remaining, having regained possession on a downcourt pass by Villanova’s Reggie Redding that went awry.

Given a second chance, Redding inbounded to Dante Cunningham, who tipped it over to a flying Reynolds, and the 6-foot-2-inch Villanova guard took off, taking it to the hoop with three Pitt players converging on him and sinking a runner with 0.5 seconds on the clock.

Somehow, that makes it sound simpler than it was.

But it wasn’t over until Fields launched his desperation shot, and, given his reputation for late-game heroics, it wasn’t surprising that what is a hopeless heave 99.9 percent of the time would actually be a very legitimate attempt to win the game.

No lesser ending would have done this game justice.

So, yeah, there were a few columns and comments on how this more than simply the best game of the Tournament this year. That it was an “instant classic,” and one of the best ever.

One shot, one play, one slight movement by a defender and maybe this doesn’t happen, maybe the game goes into overtime and the result is different. It was that close.

“We really felt like we should have won the game,” said Dixon, who continued to say how proud he was of his team, especially seniors Fields, Young and Tyrell Biggs. “We felt that we played hard, played smart, but it just didn’t go our way. … It was a split-second play.”

Coaches have said for years that the loneliest feeling in the NCAA tournament is losing in the Elite Eight. Reaching the Final Four has become the standard to which excellence is measured. Fair or not, the Final Four is what gets remembered most.

Wright lost an Elite Eight game in 2006, when the Wildcats were a favorite as a 1-seed. On Saturday they were the surprise as a No. 3 seed, beating the top-seeded Panthers. Wright said he was crushed after that Elite Eight loss to eventual champion Florida three years ago. The swing of emotion is even more dramatic when the game ends as it did for Nova on Saturday.

Tell me about it. The gut-wrenching pain of being on the wrong side of the game. The pain of being the loser.

Pittsburgh-Villanova featured 10 ties and 15 lead changes. The second half had eight ties and 13 lead changes. By the time Fields took the last, breathless shot, we no longer cared that the NCAA had stripped the building of all Celtics and Bruins banners and replaced the parquet with a generic court. By the time it was all over, we finally understood what all the fuss was about.

Villanova won.

The NCAA tourney won.

CBS won.

Boston won.

But Pittsburgh fell hard and it had to hurt.

There’s no easy way getting around the fact in the final few minutes it seemed to slip away from Pitt. Whether it was Jermaine Dixon’s turnover and foul for a 3-point play (whether still bothered by the groin pull from earlier or not), or Sam Young’s turnover, or the poor pass to Blair that resulted in a turnover.

Even then, though, Villanova made their own gaffes that appeared to even things out. And if Pitt had managed to send it to OT and won, it would have been ‘Nova that gave it away at the very end when they appeared to have it in hand — with their own mistakes. It didn’t go that way with the ‘Nova inbounds and Scottie Reynolds score. Instead, it was Pitt that gets the goat ears and Villanova that draws comparisons to their ’85 team. It sucks. It really does.

The one thing noted by many, this was on the supporting cast of Pittnot the three primary players. DeJuan Blair and Sam Young were named to the regional team. Fields hit the key shots to keep Pitt going.  Young did plenty in the NCAA Tournament to advance his draft stock while trying to carry the team many times.

One other story to note. Another piece noting how Coaches Dixon and Wright are poised to be the faces of the Big East in the coaching front in the near future if both are not lured elsewhere.

Could Wright — who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, who said he watched teary eyed when the Wildcats beat Georgetown for the title, who was an assistant for five years under Massimino — become the Jim Boeheim of Villanova? Could he and Dixon, in his sixth year as the coach at Pitt, lead the next generation of Big East lifers along with the Hoyas legacy John Thompson III?

This is a conference that launched itself with coaching personalities that ran extra large. So it may sound strange to pose the following question about the Big East, which has Villanova and UConn going to Detroit next weekend and Louisville positioned Sunday to make it a threesome, but here goes: are the upper-tier Big East teams the generic power coach’s opportunity of a lifetime, or are they more a place to build a résumé on the way to the dream job and score?

Yes, we know how much Jim Calhoun makes at Connecticut, and how he is not giving a dime back. But Ben Howland left Pitt for U.C.L.A., opening the door for Dixon, his assistant, in April 2003. Tom Crean bolted Marquette to rebuild at Indiana. John Beilein traded his Big East post at West Virginia for the Big Ten at Michigan. Some people believe that Rick Pitino, a longtime adventurer, is about due to get restless at Louisville.

We will see with questions looming in the next few weeks.

The last word, though will go to assistant Brandin Knight (who impressed Andy Katz on the sideline) about the end.

The assistant coach bid a few somber goodbyes and walked slowly back to a quiet Pitt locker room full of shattered dreams and broken hearts.

“Anytime you see kids end their careers like this, it’s difficult,” Knight said. “Levance (Fields) has been like a little brother to me. It’s tough. The uncertainty of a guy like DeJuan Blair, what his future may hold.

“Levance, I will never get to see him wear that No. 2 jersey again. Tyrell Biggs the same way, and Sam Young. I am going to miss them dearly.”

We all will.

March 29, 2009

The disgraced ex-coach of Oklahoma and Indiana has very successfully screwed Pitt this year.

As you may recall, his reign at Indiana led to recruits heading to WVU — Devin Ebanks — and Xavier — Terrell Holloway. Both were released from their letter of intent (LOI). Ebanks of course, was a big reason Pitt bowed out early in the Big East Tournament. Holloway helped give Pitt a hard time in the Sweet Sixteen.

Then there was his time that ended at Oklahoma. Scottie Reynolds had committed to Oklahoma to play for Sampson. Then Sampson fled to Indiana as the penalties at Oklahoma came down. The Sooners let Reynolds out of his LOI and he went to Villanova. I think we all know what Reynolds did to Pitt last night.


March 28, 2009

I’m hurting a bit. I know I’m not alone on this.

I’m crediting Villanova on this. Yes, Jermaine Dixon screwed up royally on the turnover along with the foul. His offense was gone.

We can go through this game with a fine-tooth comb find plenty of things that “if” someone had done better (DeJuan Blair 2-6 on FTs, Ashton Gibbs 0-3 on threes, Wanamaker with one less dumb foul, Levance Fields 2-9 from the field, Biggs and Jermaine Dixon invisible, if anyone other than Pitt’s troika could have done more, if anyone aside from Young could have made a three, Coach Dixon saving one timeout to have set up the defense for the final play, etc.).

The fact is, Villanova won the game. They have some great talent inside with Cunningham and their guards.  They shot 95.7% (22-23) on free throws. Scottie Reynolds (7-7), Corey Fisher (7-7) and Dwayne Anderson (5-5) going 19-19. All three average around 80%. One miss for each, to be around their averages, and it is a likely Pitt win. They did not, and there was nothing that could be done by Pitt about that.

Pitt shot 21-29 on FTs. That’s 72.4%. Most nights, we would take that from a Pitt team. Only 11 turnovers for Pitt. The Panthers shot 47.2% (25-53). ‘Nova only shot 44.6% and 30% on 3s — the “hottest” team in the NCAA Tournament was in check. Except at the FT line.

You want to blame. You want to vent. Fine.

I’m sad. I’m disappointed. Frustrated even. This team, though, took Pitt further than it had been. It accomplished more than any team had ever done at Pitt. It has won more. I love this team. I love the coach we have. I’m sad that the ride — no matter how stressful — is over.

Next year may be step back, but for every step back Pitt basketball has taken this millenium, it has been  two steps forward for the program. The future just keeps looking better.

It’s the right now, that sucks.

Is this a revenge game for Pitt? Is this yet another breakthrough and first for this Pitt team that has taken Pitt basketball to a slew of firsts this season? I hope so.

The fun starts about 7 PM. Have your beverage of choice at the ready. It’s going to be a tough game. The link to the liveblog is below.

Let’s Go Pitt!

Okay, as usual there will be a liveblog tonight.

One thing that Pitt and Villanova share, hot coaches who have their names coming up a lot for big jobs. And we share the hope that they kick that interest to the curb. Good (and optimistic) piece on what it could mean if both stay.

If Jamie Dixon and Jay Wright stay put, if they decide to continue their run of excellence at Pitt and Villanova for the foreseeable future, then you are about to witness the beginning of the new hierarchy of the Big East.

It’s no secret that Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse are heading toward the end of their careers. They have been the two anchors of the conference from the ’80s until now.

Dixon and Wright have a shot to keep Pitt and Villanova as the two programs of record. One of them will earn his first Final Four berth with a win in Saturday’s Elite Eight match at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston. This is Dixon’s first and Wright’s second trip to the Elite Eight.

The Panthers have been a national program under Dixon the past six seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 three times during his tenure. Villanova just made its fourth Sweet 16 appearance in Wright’s eight seasons.

Pitt might have a senior-dominated starting lineup but the Panthers continue to recruit as well as anyone in the East and show no signs of slowing down. Villanova is expected to haul in one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country, meaning the Cats won’t miss a beat, either.

“The best thing you can say about both our programs is just the consistency at a high level over the past five years,” Wright said. “That’s hard to do. And that’s challenging.”

And like Wright, Dixon is passionate about and loyal to his school. Forget about Dixon being a West Coast guy who has to be back on the Left Coast because he went to high school in Cali and his wife, Jackie, was raised in Honolulu. Dixon grew up visiting his grandparents in New York and said he was the only one who ever “summered in the Bronx.” He remembers more Big East games than Pac-10 ones. His loyalty to the Pitt administration runs deep with the way the university extended itself with a private plane to shepherd his grieving family to memorial services in New York and California after Maggie’s untimely death.

Dixon said he’s proud to be a part of Pitt, through whatever small role he has played since he arrived.

“That has been the most gratifying thing for me,” Dixon said.

So, here they are: the 47-year-old Wright and the 43-year-old Dixon on the verge of a Final Four berth. No one will be surprised if it is the first of a few for each as they potentially become the standard in the Big East.

That would work.

The players want to win for their coach.

“People talk about no Final Four appearances and no national championship,” he said. “I want him to get that.”

“Him” is coach Jamie Dixon, who can guide Pitt into the Final Four for the first time in the modern era when the No. 1 seed Panthers (31-4) play Big East rival and No. 3 seed Villanova (27-8) in an East Regional final at 7:05 tonight at TD Banknorth Garden.

Fields, who helped Pitt reach the Elite Eight for the first time in 35 years with his no-fear 3-pointer against Xavier on Thursday night, said he’s driven to see Dixon get his due.

“I think he’s a coach who deserves it,” Fields said. “I know the players play the game and the coaches get their credit. But he deserves it.”

There has never been a question that players love him and throughout Dixon’s tenure the most shocking thing has been games where the players have not played hard. That is a credit to how well Dixon has gotten them to play as a team.

Oh, and Sam Young is playing up the payback angle.

Pitt has thrived in “revenge” games in recent years, going 7-1 in their past eight postseason games against a team that beat it in the regular season.

“I definitely think it’s a payback game,” Young said. “That game kind of threw us off a little bit. Now, it’s on the biggest stage, and we’ve both got a little bit more to lose. I definitely would rather have this game than the last one.”

It helped that Pitt had 3 or 4 just last year in the Big East Tournament.

Another article on how Dixon is underrated. Yes and no. I think national media does not put him in elite status — but he hasn’t gotten there. No Final Fours, not at one of the handful of elite, historical programs. Not the most glib and media friendly. At the same time, there is no doubt he his highly respected and plenty of teams would love to have him. Arizona, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky — just this year have all had some mention of Dixon being a possibility or hope to hire. I hope he stays at Pitt a long time.

Player puff pieces:

Sam Young recap.

Levance Fields as the embodiment of Pitt’s toughness.

Fields wants the pressure.

Fields and Roethlisberger comparisons continue.

Finally this made me smile a little.

I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks thanking the hoops gods that I am not a Pitt fan. If I were, I’d be in the ICU by now. No one can beat the Panthers right now, but let it also be said that the Panthers can’t pull away from anyone either. I wonder if that’s going to work against Villanova, which has played nearly flawless basketball now for five consecutive halves. We will find out.

We’ll get to find out in large part because of the three that Levance Fields made with 53 seconds left in the game. It put his team up by one, and even as it left his hand I was thinking it was a bad shot. Maybe it was–it followed a no-pass, all-dribble sequence. Then again, it went in.

In their upcoming game, the Panthers will want DeJuan Blair have a better first half than the oddly subdued one he had against the Musketeers. In fact Pitt trailed by eight at halftime and I thought maybe their recent Sweet 16 losses were getting to them. Even after they stormed back in the second half, the Panthers played like a team aware of and defensive about their history. When Fields and Gilbert Brown got their signals crossed on a turnover with four minutes remaining, it seemed like they bickered about it for a little longer than players on a top-seeded team usually would.

It was a very thin smile.

I just don’t feel like getting all tense and stressed like I was on Thrusday. Doing the rundown of stories won’t help, but here goes.

Is the pressure off the team now that they’ve won a Sweet Sixteen game?

“I’m excited, nervous, anxious, ready … everything you can think of,” said senior point guard Levance Fields, who is playing in his fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. “But it’s being anxious and nervous in a good way. I understand this is the chance. It’s been four years knowing how hard it is and how much competition there is to get to this point. To have a chance is a blessing. I’m thankful for it.”

Several Pitt players yesterday expressed that the pressure had been relieved from their shoulders after beating No. 4 seed Xavier Thursday night. The Panthers, who have not played in an Elite Eight since 1974 and fell short in four previous Sweet 16 games, carried that burden with them into this tournament.

“We’re intense and ready for this game,” junior guard Jermaine Dixon said. “We finally got over that hump of not getting past the Sweet 16. We like what we’ve done. We feel good about it, but we’re still not satisfied. We’re still hungry. We want to win the national championship. We feel like this is the team that can do it.”

The ‘Nova fans in Boston made their feelings clear as their win over Duke wound down.

“We want Pitt . . . We want Pitt,” is what the Villanova crowd chanted with about 2 minutes left last night. It will be a brawl against brothers. It will be physical and it will be familiar. It will be wonderful and it will be hell.

Since Villanova beat once already, their coach, Jay Wright, has been trying to downplay that by saying it was all about a big night in Philly with the Spectrum.

The Spectrum didn’t have much to do with it, according to the Pitt players, who might have a different view than the Villanova contingent, at least in retrospect.

“That game we lost because of us,” Blair said. “It wasn’t because of nothing else.”

Wright’s recollection is obviously different, if only because he doesn’t want his team to have any false sense of overconfidence based on the earlier meeting.

“I know [our players] didn’t know anything about the Spectrum,” Wright said, “but in that second half when that place got going and it was so hot in there. I pride myself I don’t sweat too much. I was just sweating like crazy. . . . It was so hot and loud. That crowd got us going, whether they knew where they were or not, it got us going.”

Tied with 13 minutes to go, Villanova outscored Pitt 26-16 to the final horn. Reggie Redding, recently installed as a starter, led all scorers with 18 points. Shane Clark came off the bench to get huge rebounds. Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds both hit three-pointers in the second half that were like daggers into what was then the No. 3 team in the country.

And, yes, all right, the place went nuts.

Tonight, it will be a different place, a little less confined, a little more temperate, but the place will be going nuts again in the second half.

Of course, it was also ‘Nova’s signature win in the regular season and there is no reason that Pitt players and coaches won’t use the prior game as motivation and a bit of revenge.

Blair swears he won’t get in foul trouble and that he’s due for another big game. Hey, guess what? Blair needs to stay out foul trouble for Pitt to win.

A few links just on the match-up from:

USA Today;

Andy Katz at; and

Dick Weiss at the NY Daily News.

Crap. Now I’m getting all edgy.

March 27, 2009

DeJuan Blair’s younger brother got on his case after halftime.

“I walked out and my little brother (Greg) said something to me,” Blair said. “He said, ‘It’s the Sweet 16 and you’re an All-American. What are you playing like this for?’ I thought about what he said.”

Nice piece on Levance Fields.

Another story on gritty Pitt not winning style points. Just winning.

Recap from USA Today.

“They pushed us around in the first half but we responded in the second half as we usually do,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. “I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots. He’s made them year after year.”

Blair finished with 10 points and 17 rebounds for his 20th double-double of the season.

“It’s great, the first time; it kind of gets the monkey off your back,” Fields said of getting to the Elite Eight. “But we came here to win two games, so we’re going to go back to the locker room and get focused for one of these two teams for the next game.”

When Fields jumped onto Coach Dixon and mussed up his hair, well Coach Dixon was more focused on other things.

“He was still mad, telling me the game wasn’t over,” Fields said. “I was excited for Coach. As good as he’s been for this university and picking up where Coach [Ben] Howland left off . . . the biggest knock has been not a Final Four appearance and not getting past the Sweet 16. So this is just a step towards that. And I just wanted to embrace him because he deserves it.”

I’ve mentioned Bob Ryan writing stories from the Boston regional a couple times. He’s a BC grad, who was one of the loudest voices opposed to BC leaving for the ACC. He preferred the Big East style and the geography. So, he likes to take the shot.

This used to be a Big East town, remember?

It will be once again tomorrow when Pittsburgh and Villanova meet right here in our town for the right to play in the Final Four.

No. 1 seed Pitt was in great peril in the opening game, but this is like saying J.D. Drew is going to get hurt. They’re always in peril of late. It’s who they are. The Panthers seem constitutionally incapable of seizing control of a game until they are on their backs and the referee is about to call it a pin, and then, well, then Levance Fields thinks it’s time to do something dramatic.

Young Mr. Fields is the Pittsburgh point guard, and among his other athletic charms he has a highly, and I mean highly, developed sense of the dramatic. His particular specialty is the backbreaking, you-know-what-busting moonshot three to break open a game.

Then there are the puff pieces.

John Feinstein does (yet another) piece on Coach Dixon and his sister. It’s a nice piece, but I’m more aggravated at Feinstein for mailing it in. I mean there were already a couple just as good pieces on this done just this year. Plus the recent HBO Real Sports segment. So he was able to regurgitate old stuff and toss in a few extra quotes from an interview on Wednesday with Dixon.

Associate head coach Tom Herrion is a Massachusetts native and rumored to be a possibility for the Boston U job. He gets a local story.

His two seasons at Pittsburgh have been a great experience. Herrion loves the school, the players and staff and he and his wife, Leslie, and their 3-year-old son, Robert James, have made a home in the area. A diehard Red Sox and Patriots fan, he’s even learned to tolerate Steelers’ supporters.

Herrion would like to be a head coach again.

“I did it at Charleston and had success so I feel confident about myself,” Herrion said. “It’s got to be the right situation. I’m at a different stage in my life and my career and you have a different perspective on things. When I was younger, it was how fast could I be a head coach. I’ve learned the best job is the one you have and I’ve got a really good job.”

Herrion’s name has been mentioned as a candidate for the vacant Boston University position. Herrion said he has not been contacted by BU and declined comment on the situation, saying, “I’m just focused on helping Coach Dixon right now.”

Send in the reserves for local pieces. Brad Wanamaker gets one from the Philly area.

Over the summer, everything changed.  A series of one-on-one meetings between Wanamaker and Dixon led to Wanamaker reasserting himself.

“I had confidence that I could play for this team, so I just put in the work and effort,” he said.  “I think I earned the minutes that I play.”

All 18.6 of them.  Wanamaker has even played 20-plus minutes in 15 games this year.  Not surprisingly, the more he’s played, the better he’s performed.

Those errant jumpers of a year ago suddenly started splashing.

“I don’t care about you making it.  You’ve just got to shoot the outside jump shot, which will open up the rest of your game,” said Dixon, recalling what he told Wanamaker in the summer.  “I think that was the biggest thing.  I didn’t put pressure on him to make the shot, just shoot it.

“Sometimes he was over-penetrating and using his strength.  That’s what he did in high school.  Just taking the open shot is going to open up a world of things for him offensively.”

“He’s going to be like three-quarters of the way to graduating after (this) year,” Dixon noted.  “He’s just a great, great kid.”

Ashton Gibbs gets some love in New Jersey.

“You look at what he has done, hitting that 3-pointer against Xavier, and that’s something you dream of. You dream about hitting that big shot as a kid,” said Gibbs. “Hopefully, I’ll get that chance when my turn comes.”

For now, the leading scorer in Seton Hall Prep history is content to watch and learn in a reserve role as a freshman with Pittsburgh, which faces Villanova Saturday night at 7:05 for the East Regional championship and a trip to the Final Four — thanks in large part to Fields’ clutch 3-pointer with 53 seconds to play in the Panthers’ 60-55 victory over Xavier Thursday night.

Gibbs, a 6-2 guard who has become a key spark off the bench for the 31-4 Panthers, knows his time will come.

“It’s been a big adjustment for me this year,” said Gibbs, who scored 1,882 points at Seton Hall Prep. “But coming in I knew we had three big seniors (Fields, Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs), and I knew we were going to be a good team. We were top 10 preseason.

“So I knew this team was already good and that I would have to sacrifice something, so I sacrificed my scoring abilities to help. I’ve always been team-first and me second. I’ve been playing well when I’ve had my chances.”

Hopefully both will have a good game tomorrow to help the team.

A gritty team and one that won’t be pretty or make it easy.

Pitt isn’t masquerading during the NCAA tournament. The Panthers are who they are: a defensive, rebounding-oriented team that has streaky shooters in Sam Young and Levance Fields and a man in the middle in DeJuan Blair who can play at times well below the rim. The role players are hardly predictable. But, in the end, all that matters is this team is filled with winners.

Then there are the “just lucky.”

This was as lucky a victory for a team as you’ll see in this tournament.


And that word describes the Panthers’ trek through the NCAAs this year. They flirt with danger, play down to the level of their opponent, and then sneak out a win at the end.

Fields defended the Panthers, as you’d expect, and as he should. “If we have to win a game [this way], we’ll take it.”

But can they win the remainder of their games this way?

You kept waiting for the Panthers to turn the Musketeers into the Mouseketeers, but fourth-seeded Xavier shadowed Pittsburgh for much of the contest, which at times was absolutely unwatchable. All that was needed was some mortar and a cement truck and these two teams could have built a brick road to Detroit.

Other than the fact that this is our team — so naturally it can’t be true — the problem with this is you are essentially saying that Pitt has been lucky for 3 straight games. If so, then the flip side is that this must be a “team of destiny.” No. Hardly true either. You cannot legitimately, if you follow sports to any level, believe a team can be “lucky” three straight games. Once. Sure. A bounce a call. Things just work out. Call it luck. After that, it is just the way the team is. Making their own “luck.”

Pitt wasn’t pretty. They are not looking like the same team as they had in the season. No one is arguing that. Just like no one is arguing that they can’t  keep playing so tentatively and poorly in the first half of games. The trend is obvious. Up 3 at the half, to tied, to down 8. The quality of the teams increases and the halftime score reflects it.

They are, though, winning. They are advancing.

What Pitt did do (with a little help from some poor shooting from Xavier) was show that they can still play defense.

The Panthers ratcheted up their defense, pounded the boards, grew tougher as the game progressed and simply wore out their opponent. Yes, Levance Fields came up huge, with a go-ahead 3-pointer and a dagger of a steal-turned-layup. By then, though, it was in part because of the damage that Pitt normally does had been done.

“They pushed us around for the first half,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “But we responded in the second half, as we normally do. And we’re very proud of our guys, how they responded.”

This trend was perceived as a weakness as the Panthers came to Boston. Against East Tennessee State, the No. 16 seed, the Panthers were clutching a 59-57 lead with just 4:27 left. Two days later, they found themselves locked in a 74-74 tie with Oklahoma State with 2:42 showing.

In both cases, the Panthers pulled away late. But the idea was that those teams hanging around proved Pitt to be vulnerable.

The players saw it differently.

“We understand that no game is going to be easy,” Fields said. “Fortunately for us, in some ways, we still haven’t played our best basketball, but our opponents have been playing excellent. … It hasn’t been blowouts, but we’re making plays down the stretch when the game is on the line.”

Yes, this team can make you crazy in the Tournament.

This can’t be the same powerhouse that struck fear in the Big East Conference, the toughest league in America. Maybe I had Pitt pegged all wrong.

Then again, maybe not.

Once again, Pitt was Pitt, the most resilient team in America and a 60-55 winner against Xavier in the East Regional semifinals Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden.

Keep asking senior forward Sam Young to do too much, and this is what you get: The Panthers doing double-time in the second half and pulling out another amazing victory.

The comeback Panthers keep giving their fans their money’s worth, while nearly pushing exasperated coach Jamie Dixon toward a nervous breakdown.

Trailing by eight points at halftime, the Panthers had another tournament opponent right where they wanted them.

Crazy as it sounds, Pitt plays better from behind.

The Panthers picked up their defense, got more easy baskets in the first few minutes than they did in the opening half and — surprise, surprise — led 40-39 with just over 12 minutes remaining and 46-45 at the 7:15 mark.

Why can’t they play that way more often? Pitt is a No. 1 seed for a reason, but it has played well in flashes rather than stretches during the tournament.

It shouldn’t take being pushed to the edge of the cliff before answering the bell, but that’s been Pitt’s frustrating modus operandi.

If you were on the liveblog, you would have thought Pitt was down 20 at the half and the players had walked off the court with a minute left on the clock and gave up. The frustration, vitriol and venting. Well, I’m guessing the message boards were not that different.

Hopefully tomorrow, the team will indeed put together a full 40 minutes? I’ll settle for about 30 minutes. I like the team’s chances — even against the white hot ‘Nova team — if they can do 30 (as long as 20 of the minutes are in the second half). We will find out if the pressure is really off of them now that they are past the Sweet 16 wall.

“This definitely means a lot,” he said of that whole Elite Eight business. “The players, the coaches, the university and the city have being waiting for it a long time. But, at the same time, we feel like we’ve still got work to do.”

The best thing is Pitt has yet to play its best game in this tournament. It was horrible in the first round against East Tennessee State and, in many respects, lucky to win. It had a bad second-half stretch against Oklahoma State in the second round, blowing all of an 11-point lead and falling behind by 1 before retaking control. And last night, Pitt was — in coach Jamie Dixon’s words — “pushed around” in the first half when Xavier took that eight-point lead.

But the pressure had to have a lot to do with all of that. No team came into the tournament with more pressure because of its wonderful regular-season success, which included making it to No. 1 in the polls for the first time, beating a No. 1 opponent for the first time and getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs for the first time. And because of those previous seven years of kicking at the Elite Eight door and ending up with nothing more than a battered and bruised foot.

Pitt was expected to be playing tomorrow for the right to go to Detroit for the Final Four.

Anything less would be considered a failure.

That’s a heavy, heavy burden.

Now that it’s been shed, don’t be surprised if Pitt plays a strong game tomorrow.

If the national stories weren’t about Pitt as a team, it kept coming back to Levance Fields.

Fields was just doing his usual thing. He made a few shots, had a half-dozen assists and looked completely average. With his short, rotund build, he resembles more of the guy you go up against at the local YMCA than the one who has the biggest cojones in college basketball.

After a couple of Young misses, Xavier took a 54-52 lead on Jackson’s drive in the lane. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound (he won’t divulge his actual weight) or so Fields came down and hit the dagger and followed it up with a steal and layup on the next possession to give the Panthers a 57-54 lead with 23.9 seconds remaining.

“They put the ball in my hands and I made a play,” Fields said.

Or as losing coach Sean Miller put it.

“That kind of says it all about a senior point guard,” said Xavier coach Sean Miller.

Miller was actually talking about the play after the three, where Fields came up with the ball when B.J. Raymond was surrounded and lost the handle after Brown forced him out, Blair was behind him and Fields was able to poke it free and take off for the lay-in.

No matter who lost that game, the losing team was going to feel like they blew it. Simply because both teams missed a heck of a lot of shots that they usually make. This very easily could have been Pitt’s lament.

“I feel like we just gave the game away, you know? We worked so hard to get here and we played so hard. And we gave it away in the second half,” junior Derrick Brown said.

“Stuff that we usually do, we didn’t do. Like make layups. Defensive rebounds. It’s just tough to lose this way.”

“We just didn’t get it done tonight. The main thing is we missed layups – point blank layups. That was inexcusable,” Raymond said. “I don’t feel like I did my best.”

Oh, and Fields took out a laptop for a sportswriter with one of his errant passes in the game.

My Universe Maintains Balance

Filed under: Admin — Chas @ 12:44 pm

So I go to bed with Pitt winning and advancing to the Elite 8.

This morning I get up and my daughter has strep throat.

Been a bit preoccupied. Something relatively soon. I hope.

March 26, 2009

Nightcap for ‘Nova-Pitt

Filed under: Basketball,NCAA Tourney,Schedule — Chas @ 11:25 pm

Game time is set for 7:05 on Saturday night.

A rematch of earlier in the year.

Mizzou-UConn is the early game at 4:40

Big East is just slightly dominating.

Survive and Advance

Filed under: Basketball,NCAA Tourney — Chas @ 9:36 pm

Talk about rewriting a legacy in half-a-minute.

As great as Levance Fields has been for Pitt, the senior was hardly anything special for 39 minutes. He had 9 points, 6 assists and 3 turnovers. He probably should have had more turnovers. He shot 3-9 at that point. Only 2-5 on free throws. He just had not come up with much in the most important game of his career. It looked like he would go down small and his team would join yet another Pitt squad that couldn’t break that barrier of winning a third game in the NCAA Tournament.

Then. Then. Then it all changed. Drilling a 3 with under a minute. Deep. Hand in the face. A “NO.NONONONONONONO! YES!!!!!” moment. After that coming up with a steal when Blair poked it lose and racing like he never raced before to the other end with a lay-in. Wow.

Nothing about this game was pretty. I do not understand what is wrong with Pitt in the first half. Whether it is playing too tentative because they don’t know how the game will be officiated. Whether it is overconfidence. Whether it is tightness. Obviously, Coach Dixon has been reaching them at halftime.

Still, it was ugly. Credit also has to go to Xavier for playing that hard and tough against Pitt. They also do well in this type of game and clearly it was their game as well.

Ultimately Pitt did enough. Pitt was tough enough. Physically and mentally. Never gave up. Never stopped.

Now this Pitt team gets to keep playing.

I’m a tense, mess. I hate being this way. The brain can rationalize and intellectualize it all it wants. This game is big. Huge. It is a bit silly, but I almost feel that if Pitt can win it, so much else with the rest of the Tourney could fall into place. That’s a big lie in and of itself, but since Pitt has yet to win more than two games in the NCAA Tournament in any year, it has taken on that outsized importance.

Liveblogging will begin a bit before 7:30. You know the drill. Comments are under moderation. We’re all going to be tense, but try to keep some sembalence of control. Remember these are still Pitt guys, they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow.

The fun starts here.

Last Minute Items

Filed under: Basketball,NCAA Tourney,Opponent(s) — Chas @ 4:14 pm

I will be doing a liveblog tonight.

I am just hoping that the Pitt players and coaches are no where near as tense and uptight as  we Pitt fans seem to be.

One more scouting report on the East.

Big East Basketball report, breaking down the game.

Great, enjoyable read on CBS and ESPN analyst Bill Raftery.

Probably his best-known call came 21 years ago when Pitt’s Jerome Lane obliterated the backboard on a spectacular jam.

“Send it in, Jerome!” he said, shouting.

Late this season, Lane approached Raftery before a Pitt-Connecticut game. “With a big smile,” Lundquist said, “he said, ‘Thanks for making me famous.’ ” Raftery said, “It was the cutest thing, and the psychic reward for getting to know a kid a little bit.”

Somewhat connected sidenote, they mention that one of his daughters does PR work for Sports Illustrated. She’s the one who has been e-mailing me the cover images in the past few weeks. Did not make the connection until I read it.

Post-Gazette beat writer Paul Fittipaldo takes a question from a Xavier guy on the issue of point guards.

He even found time to do his weekly chat.

Where_is_Arvydas_Sabonis_: Pitt’s favorite ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb said that this is the biggest game in Pitt basketball history? Do you agree?

Ray Fittipaldo: Yes, until the next one if the Panthers win. Then it becomes Saturday’s game. I agree with Gottlieb. Pitt has been on the threshold of the Elite Eight on four previous occasions and never got over the hump. This is the most talented of those teams, has the best offensive firepower and great experience. If the Panthers don’t get to a Final Four this year when are they are going to do it? The table is set. All they have to do is deliver.

Otherwise, no pressure. Speaking of pressure.

When Sam Young walks down the streets of Pittsburgh, he knows exactly what’s coming.

“All everybody asks you is whether we’re going to get past the Sweet 16,” the Panthers senior forward says.

“We’re sick of hearing it,” added Pittsburgh’s Gilbert Brown.

Pittsburgh is 0-5 in the Sweet 16 in the Howland-Dixon Era, and that’s all everyone wants to talk about.

“I tell them we’ll find out together,” Young said of his response to those on the street who ask him whether they can take the next step.

Dixon and his players are hoping this year is different, that this team is different.

That they can finally rid themselves of that dreaded Sweet 16 curse with a victory against one of their own — Xavier coach and former Pittsburgh standout Sean Miller.

If it helps, Pitt fans are sick of asking it and having to answer it to others. Boy are we sick of the latter.

Powered by WordPress ©

Site Meter