Jamie Dixon at Thursday's Practice (AP)
March 19, 2010
MILWAUKEE (AP) - For Pittsburgh, making this year's NCAA tournament - as a No. 3 seed, no less - after losing four starters from last year's team was widely seen as an act of overachievement.
Still, this year's Panthers are embracing the same high expectations placed on the big-name players who came before them.
"We feel as though we have the team to get to the championship game and win it," guard Jermaine Dixon said. "So we're going to play our hardest and try to get there."
It begins with Friday's game against No. 14 seed Oakland, a team that has faced some of the NCAA's best this season and been clobbered every time.
The Golden Grizzlies were beaten handily at Kansas, Syracuse, Michigan State and Wisconsin early in the season, and lost by large margins at Memphis and Oregon.
But Grizzlies players say those games came a long time ago, and they're a much better team now. Led by 6-foot-11 center Keith Benson, who averages 17 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, Oakland has won 20 of its last 21 games, including the Summit League tournament.
"We feel pretty good," guard Johnathon Jones said. "We know they have a great team and great guards and everything like that, but we feel on a neutral court we're just as equal as them. We played a tough schedule and we're ready for them."
It's the ninth straight tournament appearance for the Panthers, who have advanced past the first weekend of play five times in the last eight seasons. Coach Jamie Dixon doesn't seem to mind his players talking about winning it all, provided they don't look past the first round.
"Every team has that feeling," he said. "You have to at this point. You have to have that mentality, I think. But again our focus has been on Game 1 and that's solely Oakland."
Another tournament appearance certainly didn't seem like a sure thing for Pittsburgh earlier this year. The Panthers came into this season without four starters from last year, including DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, who went to the NBA.
They also lost two experienced players early on, Gilbert Brown to an academic suspension and Jermaine Dixon to a broken right foot - creating a situation their coach called "almost hard to believe" in hindsight.
"People expected us to struggle and thought it would continue all year," he said. "But this team kept believing in themselves. They kept working, and I think the story about this team, if anybody's seen us, is how much we've improved from November to March now."
Oakland's Jones is expected to be the Grizzlies' defensive answer for guard Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh's leading scorer.
"I'll say this and then he'll get 30 (points)," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "But we've got a guy that I think can guard him."
As miserable as Oakland's 89-59 loss at Kansas was in November, Jones played a pivotal role in limiting the Jayhawks' Sherron Collins to nine points on 4-of-7 shooting. Kampe said Jones also handled former Michigan State standout Drew Neitzel well in the past.
"Now, us thinking it and him doing it are two different things," Kampe said. "We'll see what happens ... But we feel good going into the matchup that we have someone who can hang with him."
The job of handling Benson, meanwhile, will fall to Pittsburgh center Gary McGhee.
"He has good touch outside the paint," McGhee said of Benson. "He can go inside/outside. So I'll have to do a good job being physical with him, not letting him get easy catches inside, and just doing a good job of that."
Benson had tape on his right hand Thursday, protecting a previous injury. Benson acknowledged that it affects his shooting "a little bit" but said he expects to play well against McGhee.
Kampe - in his 26th year as the Michigan school's coach - said his team already got past its most pressure-packed moment, winning its conference tournament to make it to the NCAA tournament.
"We're not going to cut the nets down in Indianapolis," Kampe said. "We know that. Our kids know that. They have a goal to make it to the Sweet 16." Now that his team is in the tournament, Kampe hopes his players will be free and easy. And the Grizzlies appeared to be doing exactly that Thursday, doing a spirited, choreographed group warm up prior to their practice session.
Dixon doesn't expect Oakland to try to play a slowdown game on Friday, a tactic Notre Dame used in handing the Panthers a loss in the BIG EAST tournament.
"It's something I've thought about," Dixon said. "But I don't think they will. All the games we've seen, their strength is that they can put the ball in the basket and the confidence in which they play. So I don't see them doing that."