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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Jamie Dixon isn't the type of guy who spends a lot of time talking about himself. Bring up his successful tenure as head coach at Pittsburgh and that it appears the program has finally become "his," and he begins to stammer a little. It's clear that he would prefer the team be identified as "Pittsburgh," rather than "Jamie Dixon's program."
He doesn't talk about his three years as head coach, rather his eight years of service to the school, first as an assistant to Ben Howland and now as the man in charge. It's a noble pursuit. Dixon prefers to coach the team, work toward success and then let the sum of the parts get the credit. It's not that he is without ego; no major-conference head coach has that problem. It's more an outlook that allows him to go about his business in a relatively anonymous way, all the while keeping the Panthers in the upper reaches of the Big East and as regular NCAA Tournament participants. As an athletic director or school president, you couldn't ask for a better combination.
Dixon has always had that outlook, but there can be little doubt that the last several months have made him understand the need for substance over style even more. Last April, less than a month after coaching Army's women's team in the NCAA Tournament, Maggie Dixon, Jamie's sister, died from complications of a heart arrhythmia. The 28-year-old had coached the Cadets to 20 wins in 2005-06, her first at the Academy, despite arriving on campus just 11 days before practice began. As anyone who has lost a loved one way too early understands, the repercussions of such a tragedy can continue for years and take on countless incarnations. Just when you think you have felt all the emotions possible from such a huge blow, new ones appear and must be confronted.
Dixon must coach Pittsburgh's team and lead it to the best possible heights it can reach, but it's hard to chase success and achieve goals while trying to heal. Dixon's desire to push the spotlight from himself is completely understandable in light of Maggie's death, because one of his charges in the coming years is to help keep alive her legacy. As part of that quest, Pittsburgh will play one game of a unique double-header at West Point in November. In the first game, the Cadet women will play their first game since Dixon's death against an as-yet-undetermined foe. Following it will be a battle between the Panthers and Western Michigan, because the Army men's team had a previous commitment.
It wouldn't matter whether Pittsburgh were playing the Globetrotters. This one is going to be tough for Dixon. Standing on the court where his sister enjoyed a season of success will be a draining emotional experience, but it's the kind of gesture one would expect by a caring family member and a class-act basketball coach.
Once the Panthers get past that hurdle, and it's a pretty good idea to have it so early in the season, they can concentrate on making a run at the Big East title. It's entirely possible, given the youth in some of the usual suspects and the fact that Pittsburgh returns three starters and four reserves and will have the services of East Carolina transfer Mike Cook, who averaged 15.0 points two years ago for the Pirates.
"I like our group," Dixon said. "But I've liked every group we've had. We have been pretty young the last couple of years, but this year's team has more experience. We played a lot of freshmen last year."
Yes, the Panthers did. They advanced to the NCAA Tournament's second round (where they were surprised by Bradley) by giving three freshmen and two sophomores a lot of playing time. It helped to have Carl Krauser around to do a little bit of everything, but Pittsburgh was succeeding with a team that had a bunch of underclassmen. It also had 7-0 junior pivot man Aaron Gray, who delighted Pitt fans by returning for his senior season, after hearing mixed reviews about his chances in the '06 NBA draft. Believe it or not, Dixon downplays Gray's return, choosing to focus on the progress Gray has made and what he still must do. But it's big. So is the fact that with the exception of incoming freshman center Austin Wallace, the Panthers will have a roster filled with players on whom Dixon can depend, in varying degrees.
"We have a lot of guys back at important positions, guys who played good quality minutes," Dixon said. "We don't necessarily have great numbers back, but we have kids who have all improved throughout the years. That's probably why people think a lot of us."
Well, that and the coach.