Thursday, March 12, 2015

How Jamie Dixon got here and how to get back on track

1.  Dixon is hamstrung in recruiting. There are few top prospects locally and the move from the Big East has hurt recruiting in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Dixon knew that leaving the Big East would not only hurt, but kill his brand, because he would now have to recruit in different areas where they didn't know as much about Pitt basketball. That's why he was so hesitant to leave the Big East until it was no longer possible to stay.

He also won't take suspect kids, even if the administration would allow him, as evidenced by their overreaction to the Durand Johnson situation. Without a great local recruiting area, no connection to top prospects in major basketball cities in the northeast, and the fact that he and the administration won't cheat, there's only so much he can do. Normally it would sound like sour grapes to claim that mostly everybody else is cheating, but let's be honest, it's become more and more apparent that they are.

2. Even saying that, Dixon and his assistant coaches have to do a better job of identifying talent. Assistant coaches at a major program like Pitt identify and offer players on their own. It's then up to Dixon to choose who he wants, and then close on those players.

All assistants miss. It's an inexact science, after all.  Brandin Knight is considered the top recruiter on the staff but his track record isn't as great as the top recruiters on other similar staffs. In other words, the Panthers really have no ace recruiter, even if Knight is the best of the bunch. Bill Barton added Jamel Artis, and he deserves credit for that, but that's all he's added. He's practically a ghost on the recruiting circuit. New assistant Smoke Williamson is in his first year so it's impossible to criticize his recruitment yet, but his hiring was curious to say the least. Apparently Dixon thought he could find another recruiting area for Pitt, and he chose Michigan. But like I said when he was hired, the top kids in Michigan are not going to be going to Pitt. They want to play for Michigan, Michigan State, or somewhere else in the Big 10. Pittsburgh is not going have strong appeal for kids in Michigan, and it's a little troubling that Dixon thought it would. Lastly,  many praise Barry Rohrssen but it was he who brought in the likes of Tyrone Haughton and Shaq Doorson so he is not without blame either.

3.  As I've established, Dixon does not get elite talent on a regular basis. So how does he win so many games? He does it by taking good developmental prospects and turning them into really good players. He deserves a lot of credit for that because few coaches coach up good players enough to turn them into very good or excellent teams, but Dixon usually does it. But he needs time to develop them. Only a few players in his dozen years were really good before their junior years. It's not until they become upperclassmen that they form a cohesive unit of good players that work as one to make an excellent team. Dixon finished No. 4 in the nation, and won the Big East in 2011, which that year was considered the toughest single conference ever, with a starting five of Ashton Gibbs, Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker, Nasir Robinson, and Gary McGhee. Let that sink in for a second. There wasn't one star on that team, no NBA players, and not even a real point guard. But they were three seniors and two juniors that played together a lot and developed into the perfect Jamie Dixon "we all work as one" team.

4. The problem with the above example is that there is not a lot of room for error. A couple of bad evaluations and your weakest link is now too weak. And Dixon, and his staff, then started missing. In the 2010 class, Cameron Wright turned into a solid contributor but Isaiah Epps and JJ Moore transferred. In 2011 Khem Birch, Malcolm Gilbert, and John Johnson all transferred. The other signee, Durand Johnson, has not done much yet in his career and he was suspended this season.

With that many misses, the 2012 class was crucial. Dixon needed a big time class to right the ship and he thought he had it with top 10 prospect Steven Adams and top 50 prospect James Robinson. Nothing should make a program better in a hurry than an elite center and an elite point guard. Instead, Adams left after his freshman season, well before he became a major factor, and Robinson has never lived up to his lofty high school reputation. The other player in this class, Chris Jones, was actually a minor success considering late signees by Dixon rarely pan out. The fact that he is even a contributor is good.

In 2013, the Panthers hit with Mike Young and Jamel Artis, the two best players on the team currently. A third signee, Josh Newkirk, regressed this season, but it's still too early to say if he is a bust. But the biggest mistake here was not finding a replacement for Adams. And, yes, Dixon assumed Adams was leaving. He said it himself after Adams left. I even knew it and if I knew it then Dixon knew it. Adams was one of 17 kids in a poor family and he only came to the US to play in the NBA and make money. There was no reasonable explanation why Dixon didn't have a plan of succession. Instead he waits until Adams leaves and signs Joseph Uchebo, a once promising center that was now playing on one leg. Needless to say, he has not helped the team.

Not only didn't Dixon replace Adams in 2013, but in 2014 he compounded the problem. First, Rohrssen brought in a developmental lug named Shaq Doorson. He could barely catch a basketball. When Rohrssen left, so (thankfully) did Doorson. This year at Rutgers, which is one of the worst major college programs in the country, Doorson averaged 1.6 ppg and shot 23% from the FT line. Dixon replaced him with another center that Rohrssen recruited, Tyrone Haughton, who did not see the floor this year- at all. The other three signees in the class were former local, and Vanderbilt transfer, Shelton Jeter, and two other locals in Ryan Luther and Cam Johnson. All three can be good role players at least, and maybe even a little more, but four developmental players after previous bad recruiting classes has the roster reeling, is not a good thing. Dixon desperately needed a player or two that could make an immediately impact. And he failed at that.

The 2015 class is more of the same. The Panthers need a difference making point guard and center very badly. Giant Rozelle Nix should at least be better than Uchebo, Doorson, and Haughton, but he's a lesser recruited junior college player who doesn't appear to be a high impact player. He has the chance to be a good player, and if he does then the staff deserves credit for identifying a sleeper center, but the lack of finding a top 100 high school center yet again is a troubling development. At point guard, Damon Wilson should be good down the road, but I don't see him making a big impact until he's a sophomore. In other words, once again Dixon has failed to land a player that can make a big impact right away.

With Uchebo and Haughton probably moving on, Dixon has two more chances to find that player. Check Diallo? Outside of the US? Junior college? Fifth year transfer? All are possibilities but Dixon's track record makes it doubtful.

5.  Now you can see how Dixon got to where he's at. Because he won't be able to consistently bring in elite players, he needs upperclassmen who have spent a lot of time turning themselves into a cohesive unit. Instead, the Panthers had a team in which nearly half the roster was not ready, or capable, of contributing. D. Johnson was suspended for the year, Uchebo and C. Johnson were injured, Luther isn't ready, and Haughton and Randall will never be ready. That's six players right off the bat that Dixon can't use, which then leaves him with only seven players. Of that seven, five are sophomores. As I've already established Dixon needs upperclassmen to be successful, and through bad luck and bad recruiting, he just didn't have it this year.


How to get back on track:

The first thing is to get older. Luckily life will take care of that. Of the seven players that were actually in the rotation, only Cam Wright is moving on. Not only are those six coming back but so is Durand Johnson, who should immediately help with the outside shooting next year, as will Cam Johnson who could use the extra year to get stronger. Luther will also get stronger and will presumably be more of a factor. Add in Nix and Wilson, plus two more signees to be determined and the Panthers could have as many as seven new players to help the depth. And even more helpful is that upperclassmen will now include not only Robinson again, but now also Artis, Young, Jeter, Newkirk, Nix, and Jones. That's six juniors and we know juniors under Dixon usually get much better.

Then there's the recruiting. This is more iffy. Something has to change, and that begins with a bigger budget to get an ace recruiter, as well as a little more leniency with the administration. Every time I say this I get criticized, so let me specifically say that I don't want criminals or morons at Pitt. I'm talking about an occasional pass for a borderline student who just happens to be an elite basketball player. How the administration handled the Durand Johnson suspension is a good example of an administration that needs to lighten up a little. I know they fear that they will slip into the Paul Evans and Ralph Willard eras again, but there is a common ground in between that and what they've had the last 15 years. The new chancellor has seen the light in the football program, and he's hoping the same will happen with the basketball program. Dixon is a great ambassador for the university and he needs a little more help instead of suspending one of his players an entire year for a minor offense.

Bottom line, as long as the staff hits more than misses, like in the past instead of more recently, then the Panthers don't have to load up on elite recruits. One elite recruit to go with the usual good team players could get Pitt to the Sweet 16, and maybe beyond. It's no secret that their best team had the two best players of the Dixon era on the same team at the same time. But other than Levance Fields,  DeJuan Blair and Sam Young didn't have the supporting cast that other past great Pitt teams had. This is why theoretically 2016 could be special. If Artis and Young continue to develop, and Mustapha Heron comes and becomes a star immediately, the Panthers will have three excellent players to go with four other seniors. That's the type of team that Dixon has always needed but he always failed short. If he falls short this team then it will probably be time to definitively say that it's not going to happen for him. At least not in a big way. But a great guy who wins a lot may be the best Pitt can do, and there are a lot of fans out there who would love nothing more than to have their program have that problem.

50 comments:

  1. Seriously why is Barton here? Why?

    Get some assistants that can recruit.

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  2. Candid summary. Nice job. Can you please share what you know of the details behind Johnson's suspension?

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  3. I too, am curious about the D.J. situation. I never clearly understood what he did to get suspended. I get individual privacy and all, but as a high-profile athlete he is also a representative of the University, sooo . . . ?

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  4. Also, that 2011 Big East Championship team was one of my favorite sports teams ever. Naz Robinson at the 4?! Love it. Dixon will get this team right again, I think there is definitely some bad luck that struck this program. I think even if Cam Wright were 100% healthy the entire season, Pitt is in the tourney. Pardon the pun, but he was never right all year, and that hurt Pitt, which is a shame, because you couldn't ask for a better young man to represent your program than Cam Wright. Here's hoping he's got a few more games left and Pitt can work a little more MSG magic in the NITs . . .

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  5. Dj... likes the green stuff... we need better recruiters... we have great facilities, great conference, and all these kids we are recruiting know us as we have been good for a long time and on TV a lot... in bball you only need a couple kids a year since we don't get one and dones... staff needs shakeup... Dixon gets two more years to become a power again and if we are mediocre next two years then you have to consider a change. Dixon is a good coach but needs ace recruiting assistants.

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  6. Everyone targets Barton, but what has Brandon Knight done? Great player who doesn't seem like a good coach or recruiter. Really should just scrap the assistants and start fresh.

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    1. Like I said, Knight isn't a great recruiter, but he recruited most of Pitt's best players the last few years so he's the best of a mediocre lot.

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    2. I assume Knight coaches the point guards? What's he to say that both Robinson and Newkirk regressed this season?

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  7. Disagree with some of your opinions.
    1. I think it's a leap that Dixon is hamstrung in recruiting due to move from Big East to ACC. It didn't hurt Syracuse. ;)
    2. The top 50 kids are no longer coming out of the DC to Boston corridor. Only 6 kids from DC to Boston in Top 50 in 2015 class.
    3. 2 factors... poor recruiting and high turnover (transfers, etc) since 2009 is why the team is where it is at today which you clearly laid out.
    4. Today's basketball players are not attracted to Dixon style of play which affects recruiting.

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    1. 1. Pitt doesn't cheat.
      4. Most of the best programs play the same way Dixon does.

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    2. Have to agree with you even though Doke disagrees. Basketball at Pitt under Dixon has become painful to watch at times, and after Dixon's handling of Adams and Birch, elite recruits aren't coming to his program.

      The predictions of a very good team (scary good according to CH) have to pan out. Otherwise, Dixon and Pitt need to reevaluate their expectations in the ACC. Sainthood is reserved for the Ivy League.

      I think you put it appropriately, Doke, by saying halfway or something to that effect. Otherwise, Pitt basketball will turn into the kind of football program Pitt had in the 60s.

      Dixon needs to wrap his head around the fact that he is not attractive to the best prep players out there.

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  8. DJ's violation per ACC rules stipulated a one semester suspension. Steve P. said Pitt holds their athletes at a higher standard and made the penalty a whole season.
    Johnson should have been available for the ACC season, he was allowed to practice with the team all season. His upper classman experience was greatly missed in Jamie's system.

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  9. Pitt doesn't cheat. How sad that the other schools do like Syracuse and NC. What a joke. Everyone is defending Boheim or afraid to say what he did was wrong. Pathetic. Even Louisville is joke on how they handle Chris Jones. SMH

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    1. Not suggesting Pitt should cheat. But it shouldn't expect to win, either. A handful of programs get in trouble, Many play within the rules and manage to do okay.

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  10. Why does Seton Hall get recruits ?...a crap hole of a school in a crappy state...Pitt has it all over them...Willard has killed it the last two years...they don't win cause he can't coach...but talent wise they kill Dixon...why????

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    1. It's not that difficult to understand. The best kids they get are from the NJ area which proves my point.

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    2. Pitt could play in the Northeast if they didn't demand marquee matchups. LaSalle, Penn, Manhattan, Long Island would all host Pitt.You find a way to get the exposure you need.

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    3. Willard is imploding. Apparently it's difficult to manage topp talent.

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    4. Seton Hall hired a AAU coach Morton in order to bring the star player Whitehead plus 2 others.
      Some schools are paying the "handler" by giving them jobs.

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  11. How bad is the coaching at Syracuse when this team beat them twice this year and they'll still get a top 10 recruiting class next year even though they're on probation.

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  12. Before we start beating up on Coach Dixon we should look at underachieving coaches at Syracuse North Carolina and North Carolina State who recruit way better than Nixon yet they haven't done anything on the court and a last for five years. All of them have been regulars in the top 10 recruiting over the last five years.

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  13. According to Joe Starkey of the Trib, Pitt is 36-36 over the last four seasons, and 3-4 in the conference tournament. That isn't good enough. Pitt decided to put more chips into basketball when they built the Pete. Dixon has completely mishandled the roster leaving him with a handful of good players and absolutely no depth. He let Maverick Rowan decommit, and Birch to feel so ostracized that his only option was to transfer. You would think with a depleted roster Dixon would have hired a high-profile assistant instead of Smoke Williamson. I think the worst thing that could have happened was when SP gave him a 10-year contract extension. If Pitt misses the tournament next year I think he should start feeling the heat.

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  14. Pitt gets coachable, hardworking, team oriented players that fit a system. For the most part not many egos

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    1. That's an excuse for poor recruiting, because Dixon can't land elite every year.
      Pitt wagered the future of football to become a basketball school when it tore down the stadium and built the Pete. Pitt invested heavily in basketball at the expense of football.
      Sorry, no excuses for Pitt basketball.
      You can say that stuff about football with no on-campus facilities but not basketball.

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    2. It's a ridiculous argument to say that Pitt chose basketball over football. The reason basketball is hurting now is because of the move to ACC, and they did that for football. The Pete is for more than basketball. It's for many reasons. Graduating ceremonies in the Civic Arena was embarrassing.

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  15. Call me crazy but I would rather have solid jr & sr classes than one and dones any day because this year suck to go thru. It fits Dixon and staff perfectly for that to happen. As a fan base we need to except this as a strength not as a weakness

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  16. 2 questions. What is the usual sentiment of Dixon among his former players? Do they like him and do they believe he made them better players? I don't recall seeing too many comments from former players

    Why does moving to the ACC matter for NYC recruits? Do that many kids want to stay close to home and play for a team that will play in their home area a few times a year? Why doesn't that affect football players? With every game on tv I am surprised that makes a bit of difference in the long run

    dUbb

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  17. Let's not forget Malcolm Gilbert in the conversation about Dixon's lack of a "succession plan" at center. He showed some promise at the time and may have been a contributor at this point. I have no idea what he's done at Fairfield since transferring, but I have to think he'd be a better option than Uchebo. Dixon may not have been able to do anything about his desire to transfer, but it is another way in which he was hamstrung at center position.

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    1. Gilbert stunk then and he stinks now.

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  18. Per Starkey,
    36-36 in conference play the last 4 years (2 in big east, 2 in ACC)
    He actually wrote a good article and even started off stating he is a Dixon apologist.

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    1. That record is skewed by the fact that they were 5-13 one of those years. In two of those years they finished 4th in the Big East and 5th in the ACC. So that is a lazy stat if you don't tell the entire story.

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    2. Just the facts...
      Bottom line, the skid started after 2009 season, make no question about that.

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    3. There's about 325 schools out there that would love a so-called skid that includes finishing 4th in the Big East and 5th in the ACC.

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  19. Chris, it isn't lazy. It a fact. The record.

    We all know Dixon isn't going anywhere anytime soon. But the fans might opt out if the product on the floor doesn't improve. Next season is critical.

    This site, Pantherlair, and certainly Cardiac Hill are working hard to present the best case explanation and future scenario for Dixon.

    Pitt is supposed to be hosting an NIT game next week. If the opponent isn't Penn State, do you think more than four thousand fans will show up?

    What all of the media is missing, except Starkey and Pitt blather, it just how burned out fans are with Dixon and his style of bore-ball which is tolerable when he wins.

    The new chancellor isn't going to bother with Dixon's program yet. Improving football, which I think will actually be easier than seeing Dixon ever reach the Final Four, is a big task.

    Pitt doesn't care about the Final Four. They used to not even care about making the NCAA Tournament. Now, making one appearance in the NCAAs is all they want.

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    1. It was a cherry picked stat that included a 5-13 record, which was an anomaly. If you made it any other year the record is well above .500. This is obvious.

      As for Pitt media, just look at it this way. Ask any respected national media member if Dixon can't coach anymore or if he should be fired. Then report back to us. I'll wait.

      This is all the Dixon detractors need to know. He's been ranked by the national media as one of the best 20-25 coaches in the country. That's out of 351 coaches. And if any Pitt fan thinks Pitt could do better than that then they are delusional.

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    2. I'm still wondering why one has to be a storied member of the national media to form an informed opinion about Dixon....especially since we watch about 25X more Pitt BB minutes than they do?

      BTW, how many of those 351 coaches do you figure have taken in so much as one Pitt game this year? Maybe 20? And no coach has taken in more than two...the one's coached against him.

      They are basing their opinion on his past winning level. We're talking about March 2015 and beyond. Dixon and the new AD have a lot of work to do, and if Dixon thinks changes don't need to be made, I'll be checking back in a few years for your prospective new BB coach thread.

      That being said, he should get another 2-3 years at least to see if he has what it takes to be better than .500 in the ACC over the long run. Unless of course that's good enough for Pitt fans....

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    3. These national media guys forgot more about basketball than you'll ever know, and if you don't realize that Jamie Dixon is an excellent coach then you don't know much.

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    4. I didn't know you knew me...amazing. And did you just say excellent? Good to very good, maybe, excellent, no way.

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    5. By any measure he's considered excellent. You just have to come to grips with that fact. It will make your life easier.

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  20. You indicate that Haughton may move on. What really was the deal with him ? I get the fact that he missed the early prep and Bahamas, etc., but, if he is/was that bad, not sure what the early arrival would have done for him. JD and staff must have seen something or was it that a slot was open so go ahead and fill it. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't.

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  21. The moment Robinson stepped on the court, it should have been painfully aware to Dixon that he didn't have the quickness needed to play PG. Compound that with a 30% 3PT FG and you have a disaster.

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    1. I think Dixon figured JR would improve after his freshman year by losing some weight and getting better in shape and in his game. I think we all did, but he's no better now than he was in March of his freshman year. He could play another 4 years and be no better.

      The problem is Dixon has no one better to replace him....and that's on him....including next year sadly. He's been also showing a disconcerting inability lately to evaluate the PG and center positions while recruiting. The two most important positions in his system BTW. Adams was a gift wrapped no-brainer.

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  22. I give Dixon 2 years to turn it around.
    I would also be keeping an eye on the Hurley brothers.
    They can recruit the DC to Boston corridor.

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  23. So how's that "Pitt is a top 25 program" thing working? lol, 4 years in a row unranked and 2 non-tourney. This isn't a hiccup. it's a trend. But I appreciate the honesty of the article.

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  24. Jamie Dixon is an excellent coach and is considered one of the best in the country. Anybody that doesn't know that is a fool or has an agenda.

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  25. If recruiting is the lifeblood of a sports program, and your recruiting is an obvious weakness, and you're the head coach, shouldn't Dixon be held accountable? Either fix the problem NOW or accept your fate later.
    If I was Michael Young I would be telling Jamie to either get a center or I will find a program that lets me play the position that might give me a shot at the NBA (i.e., PF) Jamie can't keep making his players suffer because of his and his staff's recruiting ineptitude.

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    1. I went into great detail about the mistakes Dixon made but the guy also finished No. 4 twice in his career so to say he can't recruit at all is ridiculous. There are two different types of recruiting- getting the elite players everybody wants, and finding hidden gems. In the former Dixon is not great, in the latter he has been quite successful. But instead of being rational people say Dixon is an awful recruiter which just isn't true.

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  26. I enjoy reading your website very much as it is very informative. I have to admit I am not nearly as up-beat as you are about the direction of the basketball program. Recruiting appears on a major downward trend. The coaches on the bench seem like little or no help to Dixon and look like deer in headlights. I actually think coaching this group is bad on Dixon's health. Trying to coach up mostly Division Two talent on the Division One level must be tough. Pitt basketball right now is tough to watch when the other team has a good big man or a quick point guard. I agree, the administration must make changes in the current state of recruiting.

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    1. It depends on what you mean by optimistic. I think they'll definitely win more next year and go to the NCAAs. And if Artis stays, Heron comes, & nothing unforeseen happens they could be a top 15 team in two years. The next two years will determine a lot. But at the end of the day this is a coach that won more Big East games than Syracuse & UConn, & finished in the top 5 twice, & in the top 10 another time. He's no slouch. It's not like he forgot to coach.

      As for coaching up Division 2 talent, this is the kind of gross exaggeration that makes me defend him so much. They were in the middle of the pack in a major conference with two soohomores that were all-stars in the ACC. That's hardly Division 2 talent. There's nobody on that team that's Division 2 talent, except maybe Haughton.

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  27. Chris, is there any chance Suzy McConnel and Jamie Dixon could switch jobs?
    She'll be getting an ACC crown way before Jamie.

    Your thoughts if this is possible?

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