Jamie Dixon helped craft Pittsburgh’s basketball identity for a generation: Tough, rugged, defensively stingy, often not easy to watch but almost always successful.
It was a wonderful fit in the old Big East, less so in the modern ACC. And so Dixon, 328-123 during his time at Pittsburgh, departed this week for Texas Christian.
The biggest question isn’t why Dixon would leave for one of the nation’s worst power-conference programs (it’s his alma mater, among other things). Rather, it’s whether Pittsburgh can sustain or even build upon what he and predecessor Ben Howland established over the last decade and a half.
Dixon took Pittsburgh to 11 NCAA tournaments in 13 years. He also got the Panthers out of the first weekend just three times. Those two facts sum up both why he warranted plenty of appreciation and why things may have grown stale in the Steel City.
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And let’s be clear: That run of steadiness is no sure thing at Pittsburgh. In an 11-season span from 1990 to 2000, it had seven losing records and two NCAA tournament bids. That wasn’t yesterday, but it wasn’t eons ago, either. Winning, let alone winning big, is not a given for the Panthers.
Howland engineered the program’s turnaround, and Dixon maintained and nurtured it. There was slippage, with an early NIT exit in 2015 followed by an unsightly 47-43 loss to Wisconsin in this year’s NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed. But some of that might stem from the Panthers’ conference change.
Throughout Dixon’s tenure, Pittsburgh leaned heavily on its pipelines into Washington and especially New York. The Panthers routinely made multiple trips to play in the New York area each year, something it can no longer do in the ACC (though the league tournament’s move to Brooklyn the next two years helps).
It’s still uncertain just how Pittsburgh will fit into the gargantuan ACC, even three years into the relationship. It isn’t a storied powerhouse like Louisville. It isn’t the center of attention in its area like Syracuse. It is a decent program suddenly out of its traditional element, and you can ask Boston College how well that’s worked out as an earlier-wave Big East refugee.
There’s risk involved for Dixon here, too, but it will be well-compensated risk with relatively modest expectations. The Horned Frogs’ last three coaches all left with losing records. They’ve turned in 11 sub-.500 seasons in the last 14 years. TCU is 8-64 in league play since joining the Big 12. Its last NIT bid came in 2005, and it last played in the NCAA tournament in 1998.
The best case for Dixon is he turns the Horned Frogs into a midpack Big 12 team. Worst case, he’s Oliver Purnell 2.0, leaving an ACC program where he regularly turned out postseason appearances for a five-year sentence at the bottom of a major conference.
He leaves behind a solid team, one that loses point guard James Robinson and a few role players. Forwards Jamel Artis and Michael Young project to return as seniors, and six of the Panthers’ top seven scorers have eligibility remaining.
There’s enough in place for Dixon’s successor to get to the NCAA tournament next season. However, this is a hire certain to be judged on how Pittsburgh continues to settle into its new neighborhood in the long-term.
Been there before
Not only does the ACC have a record six teams in the Sweet 16, each team still standing has at least some recent experience this deep into the tournament.
Duke won last year’s national title. Notre Dame played in a regional final last year. North Carolina made it this far a year ago, Virginia in 2014 and Miami the year before that. Syracuse was a Final Four team in 2013. All six teams have at least one player with experience this deep in the tournament.
Not only that, but the coaches involved are particularly tournament tested; all six are in at least their third regional. Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Miami’s Jim Larranaga hit that milepost this year.
Syracuse, which routed Dayton and Middle Tennessee State to advance to the second weekend, is the fifth ACC team with a double-digit seed to make it to the round of 16. That might not seem like a lot, but consider there have only been 15 ACC teams land double-digit seeds (and Pittsburgh and Syracuse this year were two of them).
The Orange (21-13) can take things a step further than previous tournament surprises out of the league if it knocks off 11th-seeded Gonzaga in Chicago on Friday. The four previous double-digit seeds from the ACC (1994 Maryland, 2005 N.C. State, 2011 Florida State and 2012 N.C. State) all fell in their respective regional semifinals.