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Dixon quiets the doubters

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Last fall when Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon went recruiting for the first time as a head coach, his pitch focused on some obvious themes.

There were his school's strong academics, its plush new arena and the program's track record of making guys better, which includes two recent Big East most improved player selections.

"And then we also pointed out who we were recruiting against," Dixon said. "Some of the guys in the league had 600 more wins than I did. I knew what [people were] saying. So we tried to beat them to the punch."

Acknowledging that he had, at that point, zero career victories – but countless doubters in Northeast basketball circles – probably helped ease fears and aided Pitt in signing a touted recruiting class.

But that counterpunch is nothing compared to the haymaker of respectability Dixon threw this winter.

It wasn't one of those 600-win, national-championship coaches who captured the outright Big East regular-season title. It was Dixon, 38, previously an anonymous Pitt assistant coach – despite losing his All-American point guard, two other all-league performers and, of course, head coach Ben Howland, the architect of the Panthers' recent renaissance.

That is what you call one heck of a rookie season.

"If I sat down and thought about it like that, I might get myself in trouble," Dixon said Monday.

The Big East tournament kicks off Wednesday in New York. Sixth-ranked Pitt (27-3) enters as the favorite, still playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in part because Dixon never sits down and thinks about things like that.

He likes to remind everyone that he spent part of his childhood in New York, but the city didn't seem to rub off on him.

New Yorkers tend to worry about what other people are saying about them, about dealing with expectations, about getting the chance to shove it in the face of their detractors. And plenty of folks figured the Panthers were headed back to obscurity once Howland went to UCLA and Skip Prosser opted to stay at Wake Forest rather than take over at Pittsburgh.

Dixon didn't care.

"I wasn't insulted," Dixon said of the doubters. "I didn't use it as motivation. I don't feel any vindication."

Dixon went to high school near Hollywood, where as a kid he acted in commercials. He played college ball in Texas. He cut his coaching teeth in the West before coming to Pittsburgh with Howland five seasons ago.

When you are recruiting in Brooklyn and Boston, it helps to be known as an East Coast guy. But there unquestionably is some California cool in Dixon. He is the first coach I've ever met to say there was almost no difference moving from assistant to head man.

"Nobody believes me and maybe I'm naive, but in my mind I [didn't] look at it being a big difference," said Dixon, who started his career with an 18-game winning streak. "That's how I look at it. And that's how it was. I never sat down and thought about [being head coach]. I just kept working through the process."

So the increased pressure never made you nervous?

"No, not any more nervous than I was before as a player and an assistant," Dixon said. "Of course, Jaron Brown and Julius Page [Pitt's returning starters] probably had something to do with that."

What Dixon accomplished is remarkable. All season the buzz in the Big East was when – not if – the departure of Howland would catch up with Pitt.

The championship banner they'll soon hang in the Petersen Events Center will show that we are still waiting to find out.

Dixon laughs at all of that. He isn't much for the spotlight. He isn't going to get introspective. He is most proud the system is still making guys better (see Carl Krauser). He would rather talk about his players.

He just isn't some hyper-ego coach.

Thursday he'll take the Big East's top seed into the world's most famous arena, going for the clean championship sweep over Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun and the others. All as a first-year coach. A week later he'll enter the NCAAs with a team capable of winning the whole thing.

It's like a dream.

He's aware of this. He's respectful of it. He isn't worried though.

"I know what it is, but it's all the same when you get down to it," he said. "Just get it done on the floor."

What more do recruits need to know?