ACC tournament: Pitt avoids bubble trouble, giving Jamie Dixon a moment to savor

When any competitor reaches an elevated place, only to fall from that height and spend years trying to climb back up the mountain, frustration is the natural human response.

Frustration has characterized much of the past several seasons for Pittsburgh basketball coach Jamie Dixon. Accordingly, Panther fans have not been terribly pleased with their leader.

No, the program hasn’t collapsed. No, it’s not in shambles. No, the Panthers aren’t going to miss the 2016 NCAA Tournament. They might not be a lock, but they’re going to be very hard to keep out of Bracketville after their 72-71 win over the Syracuse Orange in the second round of the ACC Tournament on Wednesday afternoon.

Pittsburgh will likely make its third Big Dance in four seasons following a dreadful 2012 campaign which ended in a CBI trip. The Steel City takes pride in its resilience, and given Pittsburgh’s awful week against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech — which placed the Panthers in a position of pronounced peril coming into Wednesday — this win represented a magnificent portrait of a team that overcame opponents of all kinds.

Yet, while Pittsburgh basketball does not exist in a state of crisis, it certainly doesn’t exist in a state of supremacy, either. Given how close Pittsburgh was to the top of the heap in college basketball several years ago, it’s quite understandable that people in and around the program would agonize over a series of near-misses in March.

You remember Pitt’s best team in the Jamie Dixon era. The 2009 squad with Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair, and Sam Young earned a No. 1 seed and took Villanova to the wire in the Elite Eight. Then Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds made his mad dash to the rim and scored the buzzer-beater which denied Pitt its first Final Four since 1941:

The Panthers had made the Elite Eight only twice before in their history — the Final Four season of ’41, and then in 1974. When the Panthers cracked the Elite Eight that year, North Carolina State and David Thompson were waiting. The eventual national champions that season were a transcendent team. They throttled Pitt by 28 points. The 2009 loss to Villanova was as close as Pitt basketball had come to the Final Four in nearly 70 seasons.

The program made one more furious charge up the mountain, but in a flash, it got knocked down the slopes with considerable force.

A loss to Butler in the 2011 NCAA Tournament — caused by a loose-ball foul on a missed free throw at the end of a spectacular contest — represented the unfortunate conclusion to a glistening season of achievement. The Panthers have never truly recovered from that moment. They are making NCAA tournaments more than they miss them, but the days of being a top-three seed are remote, and everyone in Pittsburgh knows it. That awareness, that knowledge, is what makes Dixon’s tenure — well into its second decade — feel like a disappointment. The idea that Pitt needs another coach to make a Final Four run is not illogical.

The problem?

What if Pitt becomes the next Boston College?

The longing for top-tier accomplishments at Pitt is natural, and not to be criticized. Life is complicated, however, and the sticky wicket in this discussion is that before Ben Howland and Dixon — his assistant — came aboard at the start of this century, Pittsburgh hoops had not been a relentless winner.

The Panthers had made NCAA tournaments in consecutive seasons only three times before Howland-Dixon came to town. Pitt stacked together NCAA trips in the late 1950s, the early 1980s, and then the late 1980s. The eighties represented a very productive start-to-finish decade for the program, but that was the only decade in which the Panthers regularly achieved. Then Howland established Pitt at a higher level than anyone had seen in quite some time. He left for UCLA and handed the keys to Dixon.

For the first several years, the arrangement worked great — but without the March exclamation point known as the Final Four.

Now, these many years later, making a 7-10 or 8-9 game in the round of 64 — winning it some years and losing it in others — doesn’t feel like a lot. That is true.

However, with this win over Syracuse, Dixon — 3-0 against Syracuse this season, owner of five straight wins over the Cuse, and 7-2 all-time against Jim Boeheim in the Carrier Dome — has very likely registered a hugely impressive feat.

Assuming Pittsburgh’s name is called on Selection Sunday — and it very probably will be after Wednesday’s escape — Dixon will make his 11th NCAA appearance as a coach. That’s more than double the name of the man who is second on the list, Paul Evans (5).

Even though Pittsburgh blew a late lead by dissolving into a pool of panic against the Syracuse press, the Panthers — in a game which has typified their season and their recent existence under Dixon — survived. They halted their collapse. They withstood the tidal wave of fear which coursed through their veins. That’s the best of Pittsburgh under Dixon.

Yet, on the other hand, Pitt ultimately won not because it did something great, but because its opponent failed, a perfect representation of the mediocrity so abundant in college hoops this year:

There’s so much to admire in Pittsburgh basketball under Jamie Dixon, and yet there’s a palpable sense that a program can do better.

The point is not so much in any answer, but in the idea that the question is difficult to resolve in a way which pleases all members of the Pitt constituency.

Panther fans should not be satisfied with the course of the past five seasons… but they should also be aware that many programs would kill for a five-year run with three NCAA tournaments.

Jamie Dixon himself created that kind of standard.

He and Pitt basketball could be better, yes.

They could also be so much worse… and they’re going to go Dancing next week in the round of 64.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.