by Armon Gilliam
For New Pittsburgh Courier
During Jamie Dixon’s tenure at the University of Pittsburgh, his basketball teams have fared well in regular season play and enjoyed a moderate amount of success in the Big East post season tournament. The regular season victories along with the Big East tournament success have piqued a lot of interest in Pitt’s basketball program and infused the hearts of many fans with hope for bigger and better things on a national stage.
Coach Dixon has continued the winning tradition of Pitt basketball that was re-established during the Ben Howland era. Here are some of Dixon’s accomplishments: 1. led the team to a Big East regular season title in 2004 and 2011, 2. led team to winning the 2008 Big East tournament and he was named Big East Coach of the Year in 2004. Yet with all the winning, awards and elevated expectations, fans are not satisfied because they long to see their team make a respectable NCAA tournament run.
The NCAA tournament is the crucible where the true merit of players and coaches are tested by the heat of competition. Once a team enters the tournament, they will face quality opponents that are highly motivated to win. The conference a team plays in or the regular season record doesn’t amount a hill of beans when tournament play begins.
Games are decided by players: ability to execute a game plan, making hustle plays, shot selection, basketball I.Q., and defensive intensity level. Coaches have to formulate a successful game plan that gives their teams a better chance to win. At the end of the day, however, players will determine their own fate by the level of play they muster up in pursuit of victory.
There was a time when a great disparity existed between teams from large conferences and teams from mid major conferences. Those days are gone and now there is an unprecedented level of parity in NCAA basketball. It is the parity that allows for many close games and upsets where either team has a legitimate chance to win.
Case and point: Butler vs. Pitt.
As I watched the game, I didn’t feel at any point that Butler was over matched. In fact, Pitt played from behind most of the game. Shelvin Mack of Butler stood out as the best guard on the floor. On the other hand, Gilbert Brown played his heart out while his teammates played subpar games. Sadly, this hotly contested game came down to a case of dumb and dumber.
With 1.4 seconds on the clock Ashton Gibbs threw a careless inbound pass to Gilbert Brown who made an athletic play to save the ball from sailing out of bounds around half court. As Brown grabbed the ball inches away from the sideline, he quickly adjusted his body and prepared to make a desperation heave to the basket. Shelvin Mack ran into Brown as he launched the shot and committed a dumb foul that sent Brown to the free throw line with a chance to win the game. Brown sank the first of two free throws attempts. Routinely coaches would have their players vacate the lane in a situation like this. Coach Dixon failed to do this. Brown missed the second shot. As Matt Howard of Butler secured the rebound, Nasir Robinson lunged towards him, grabbed his arm and committed an even dumber foul. Howard stepped up to the free throw line and sank a game winning free throw that broke the hearts of Pitt fans.
I do understand the great frustration and anger that spewed from many disgruntled Pitt fans. After all, Pitt has a long history of making early exits from the NCAA tournament which is disheartening to their fan base. Playing the blame game, however and claiming that Brown choked or Coach Dixon was out coached or he choked is hitting below the belt.
Brown was a hero in the game. He led the team in scoring and sank the game tying free throw. The last time I checked choking is losing a game. Brown gave his team a chance to win in overtime.
Coach Dixon’s record speaks volumes and his team had many chances to win. The team’s lackluster performance coupled with an inexplicable foul by Robinson is what led to Pitt’s demise. Robinson must feel like the village idiot. I feel bad for the guy.
Pitt fans are going to lament this heart wrenching loss for awhile. Seeing their basketball team make another early exit from NCAA tournament is hard to stomach. Hang in there Pitt fans. Who knows, maybe next year the team will have a good regular season and put together a respectable NCAA tournament run.
(Bethel Park native Armon “The Hammer” Gilliam played 13 years in the NBA (1987-2000). He also played one season (2005-06) for the Pittsburgh Xplosion of the American Basketball Association.)