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March 19, 2008
THE MODERATOR: Joining us now Pittsburgh. We'll take questions for the student-athletes.
Q. Could you talk about what you did in the Big East tournament, winning four big games in four days, what's that done for you getting to this point?
RONALD RAMON: I think it was sort of about focus. During the Big East tournament. Talked about it before we went down to Madison Square Garden. Talked about what we needed to do to come out and be successful. We just played hard, played as a team, played good defense and our focus was there.
Q. Syracuse did exactly what you did two years ago. They came into the first round of the tournament and lost. What can you do to prevent that from happening and having a letdown here in Denver?
KEITH BENJAMIN: Just sticking with the focus that we instilled in ourselves last weekend. We're just going to stay focused, keep the goal at hand, keep playing team basketball and not worry about what happened to other teams in the past.
We're just looking to play basketball and keep having fun and playing together.
MIKE COOK: I think it's just like Keith said. You know, the guys have done a tremendous job of staying focused, overcoming a lot of adversity throughout the season. You know, you're talking about two different teams, separated by a year. So it's really not an issue for this team. That's Syracuse; we're Pitt. We just going to go out there and, like they said, just be focussed and try to get a win tomorrow.
Q. Could you talk about what concerns you most about Oral Roberts?
RONALD RAMON: I think their guard play. We got to make sure we come out ready to play some defense. Their guards are pretty good guards. They're going to come out and play hard. Coming off screens, we have to make sure we ready, we stay down. And in the post, whenever they get the ball inside, we just got to make sure that our team defense is there.
Q. Can you talk about the evolution of DeJuan Blair? He's come pretty far here. Looks like he's ready to kind of pop off. What have you seen behind the scenes that shows maybe DeJuan is going to have a big tournament or that he's confident enough to do well in the tournament?
KEITH BENJAMIN: Just everything about him. He's a very young kid. But DeJuan, he's just not afraid to go out there and play basketball. He's very young, but he understands that mistakes are going to be made, and he understands that we don't really rely on him to win games, even though he's still a freshman on the team.
The decision of game winning lies on senior leadership and Levance and everyone else, not DeJuan. That's what allows him to play so good and so great.
Q. How concerned are you about playing at altitude?
RONALD RAMON: We talked about it a little bit. But it's all about just, you know, going out on the court and not worrying about everything else. You know, every other team that's going to step on the court is going to play the same way, the same atmosphere, the same stage that we playing on. We just got to make sure we go out there and play, stay focused and do the things we came out to do, and that includes playing defense, being smart on the court, playing smart basketball.
Q. Would you talk about your style of play, being physical, and where does that come from?
KEITH BENJAMIN: Just comes from everyday practice. It's something that Coach Dixon tries to instill in us, just always being physical and aggressive on your block-outs, everything you do playing defense. We just practice like that every day. Right now it seems to be working. It seems like we're out-working teams, being more physical than guys, beating them to the punch on every aspect of the game. As long as that keeps working, that's what we're going to keep doing.
MIKE COOK: I think if you look at the type of players we have, we got guys from New York, Philly. I mean, playing physical, playing tough, it's not something that we're not used to. You combine that with the work ethic that Coach Dixon instills in us, it's a style of play he likes to play, a style of play that we all like to play, and has been very successful for this program.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, guys. Good luck tomorrow.
Joined now by Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon. We'll begin questions.
Q. Your comments on Oral Roberts University. They've been the David and Goliath, the big underdog. Your sense of this game?
COACH DIXON: That's the first time I would have heard that term.
You guys probably know how many times have been in the NCAA tournament three years in a row. I know we've had a nice streak. But, again, there's very few teams in this tournament that have been there three years in a row.
Very experienced team overall just with seniors, sixth-year seniors as well, and fifth-year seniors. Also a team that's used to winning and been to the NCAA tournament. There's not very many teams. Maybe you know the number, but how many have been to the tournament three years in a row? This I think is something that they've had a higher seed each year. They seem to become a better team each year.
Well-coached, seniors. Those are the teams that do well. Their record speaks for itself.
Q. The evolution of DeJuan Blair. This is his first NCAA tournament game. Where do you see him fitting in? How do you see him doing tomorrow and this weekend?
COACH DIXON: Well, I think we've been through so many games, I mean, this has been -- what, we're on game number 36 I guess here now. It's been a long year.
This is a guy that's played in a lot of big games. He won championships in high school. He's been around us for a long time. So he's always kind of been -- I mean, everybody asks us after those big games, he played well in the big ones, how he seems -- never seems to be in awe of anything. I don't really see that changing here come tomorrow. He's played in Madison Square Garden, he's played in front of national TV 26 times this year, 30 times I guess with those four games.
I think he'll be doing the same thing. He'll be smiling. He'll be having fun. I'm sure he'll play very well.
Q. Seventh year in a row you have gotten this far. Talk about how this team compares to teams of the past few years and what winning those four games in four days has done for this team coming into the tournament?
COACH DIXON: Yeah, I think I never like to compare teams. This team, the one thing that we had new going into this team, and it became even more evident, was the youth of the team. We have four freshmen that were going to play a lot of minutes. Your two most experienced guys, two most experienced starters go down, you become a lot younger quick. That's what happened with us when Levance and Mike went down. Austin Wallace goes down, Cassin Diggs. We got real quick on a team that was already young. This team was a team that I really thought, really you always talk about improving, but this team had every reason to improve. The youth, adding guys as the year went on, adding Levance, getting through some other injuries with some guys, Keith Benjamin with the sliced finger and the eight stitches he was playing with, Gilbert Brown, Ronald Ramon with their shoulders.
So really, you know, we've talked about where we were going to be later in the season, March, and really pointing towards when we got Levance back the last four games of the season going -- the last four games of conference season where Levance would be practicing by that time. We also got Cassin practicing a little bit. Got us another body in there. We picked up a walk-on that helped us in Ryan.
Also all of a sudden the end of February, early March, we were actually practicing and actually doing full practices, which we hadn't done since November and December. So we found that practice is a good thing and practice helped us out. We were looking forward to that time.
It sounds pretty simple, but we weren't able to do the things that we normally do practice-wise as far as developing the toughness, the competitiveness that we normally do. It was with anticipation that I looked at this team, where we would be, the things we could do come late February and early March.
Q. I read a good story about one of your earlier trips to Denver. Sounds like it almost didn't actually happen. Could you talk about some of the more harrowing adventures on getting up here. Also the players you got, it sounded like they might have kind of pushed you and Ben along in your building. How big of a deal was that for you?
COACH DIXON: Yeah, you know, there was -- NAU, that was a long time ago recruiting here. We were at Northern Arizona, you have to learn I think any time you go recruiting, go to a new job, you have to figure it out. If you go in thinking you have all the answers, you're going to get yourself in trouble.
I went to Northern Arizona, we had a lot of kids from Phoenix, Los Angeles. They weren't fitting in. It wasn't working. The kids just didn't seem comfortable there. So I decided we were going to go recruit other areas. That was our initial plan, was to recruit closers, big cities that were nearby. Then we recruited other areas. We decided we needed to go to places that were similar to Flagstaff, Arizona, as far as weather, environments, communities, people. So we started looking at different place. We recruited small-town kids as well as kids up in Denver and Colorado.
So we went to different places and started recruiting Colorado probably my second, third year in Colorado, really went up to Denver a lot. I think the story you're talking about is where I found Billy Hix. It's kind of a legendary story in Flagstaff. But he's an assistant now at NAU and a great kid, a great player. But obviously we didn't have the recruiting budget we have at Pittsburgh that we have now, thanks to Steve. But we lost the game. We didn't win many at Northern Arizona. I think we went 6-8 our first two years. We lost the game. I was very disappointed. I had hoped to go recruit a couple kids in Colorado, Denver, but we didn't have the budget. I couldn't pay for a flight to get there.
I decided after the loss that we couldn't hang around. We had to do something. So I just got in the car. I looked at the map. I didn't know how far, but it didn't look that far on the map. So I just got in the car and started driving to Denver to find some kids. I knew about a couple kids that were playing in a couple games. So I just started driving.
Once I realized it was a little longer, it didn't help that I had to sleep on the side of the road because there was an avalanche and the roads were closed. That was closed off, as well. But I did make it here and I was able to find Billy Hix, Aki Palmer was another kid we recruited who came to our place for a year, became a very good player at Colorado State, and Billy Hix was probably the toughest kid we've ever had anywhere. And then we recruited Joel Reick and Matt Gephardt as well, the next couple years, who became very good players at NAU, that I didn't have the good fortune to coach but I recruited.
So that's how we started recruiting Colorado and Denver, doing it there. I have fond memories of recruiting those kids because they're still friends today, and good people.
Q. Talk about the Panthers, the very physical play we hear so much about.
COACH DIXON: I think that gets overplayed some by our opponents. I think they usually say that after a game or something. But I don't think we're that physical. I think we just try to play hard. Sometimes we bump into a few guys. There seems to be some reactions.
But I think we play hard, and that's what we do. We like to have tough kids. But if you're from Pittsburgh, and you're successful, I think you're going to be known as a physical team. That may be true. But we do want tough kids. We do want kids to be proud of their defense and proud of how they go about the game.
So I think that's something that just builds upon itself. But, you know, we pass the ball well. We shoot the ball relatively well. We're unselfish. We're getting better at defending. Sometimes being physical is part of that.
Q. Tell us a little bit about Oral Roberts, how you plan on attacking them tomorrow.
COACH DIXON: I'm very impressed with their range, the way they shoot the ball. When they bring in Jarvis, they become almost a different team in how they play and how you got to match up with them.
They start big, then they go small, and they become very dangerous from the perimeter. But very, very dynamic scoring trio on the perimeter. You've got to be with them, contain 'em at all times, be out to contest the three at all times.
Then they defend well on the interior. I think they have good balance on the offensive end with Lewis giving them some inside production as well. It's a good balanced offensive team with a tough, hard-nosed man-to-man team, what you would expect from Coach Sutton. Anybody that grew up in the Sutton family and the Coach Iva (phonetic) family of defense.
Q. Everybody the first thing they mention about Pitt is they're as tough as any team in the country. How much pride do you take in that? How do you define "toughness"? Is it as much mental or physical?
COACH DIXON: I think it's more mental than physical. That's how I define "toughness" is mental.
You know, I think people talk about playing the four games in the four nights. People were asking me before that going into the game against Georgetown how we were going to be able to handle it. Our guys have been through so much more this year. I don't think people quite understand, I talked about it after we played Syracuse, and they had a couple kids go down. But when you have kids that lose their season, lose their year, especially a kid that's a senior, has worked so hard, made such sacrifices, and they're friends with you, they've been in the battle, they've been in practice, they spent all summer getting in the best shape of their lives, when you see that their season ends, that's tough. That's tough. When you have to gather yourselves together and gather your team and play for them, play for them, for their losing out on their season that they worked so hard for, that's where you develop toughness, that's where you develop a determination to get through and not let them down.
I think that's what this group has had right now. I mean, we've had so many teams count us out, so many people count us out. I don't fault people for that. When you lose four guys for the year, a third of your team, you know, that's a normal thing to do. Most people would do that.
But with this group, they didn't. They looked at it as an opportunity. We just kept battling. We knew there would be some setbacks. I think you also have to understand that, too. You have to know that there's going to be setbacks. It's not all going to be a nice, easy road. When you lose some guys, you're going to have some more injuries, you're going to lose a game or two that maybe you shouldn't lose. But you have seven players, somebody gets in foul trouble, a couple guys don't play well, that's going to happen.
But we got through those and learned from 'em and became better for it. I think that's why we started playing our best basketball the last four conference games and now these last four tournament games that we've played.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about Sam Young and the leadership role that he has had to assume and increase perhaps?
COACH DIXON: Yes, of course. I mean, you know, you talk about guys, he improved the most. He was the most improved Player of the Year in the Big East. That's kind of a reward that we take great pride in because we've had five of those winners in the recent years.
But everybody's talked about his shooting, his scoring, how that's improved. But to me, you know, the improvement on his leadership, his communication with his teammates, communication with the media, talking to the media, just being more outspoken, I mean, that's a dramatic change for a kid that's a very mild-mannered, soft-spoken young person. That's a lot for a kid, to ask him to do. We've asked him to do that and he's done a very good job and he's improved in those areas.
You know, just seeing him today, just talking on defense, helping the younger guys, because all of a sudden when Mike and Levance go down, he becomes the most experienced guy, the oldest guy. This is from a guy that hadn't, you know, started or hadn't made a lot of minutes going into his junior year. So it was a dramatic change for him. I'm just proud of how he's handled it, how he's almost relishing it. I think he's enjoying it now. Which I think if you talk to people before, they'd be somewhat surprised by that. He's enjoying it.
I ask him for his input, I want his input on what he thinks, what we're doing defensively, things we're running, things that we do. I think he's taking that and he's gaining more and more confidence at the same time. It's one thing to gain confidence on the court. It's another thing to gain confidence off the court. I think we're seeing that.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you very much.
COACH DIXON: Thank you very much.
End of FastScripts