Pittsburgh Meets UCLA in Sweet 16

Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon are both defensive-minded coaches who prefer a grind-it-out style to an up-and-down track meet.

When UCLA and Pittsburgh face off in the San Jose regional Thursday night, the defenses will have an added advantage. Because Pitt still employs the same system Howland developed before leaving for UCLA, the players will know the other team's plays as well as their own.

Oddsmakers have made UCLA -3 point spread favorites (College Basketball Odds) for todays game, the over/under has been set at 123 total points (View College Basketball Sports Books). Our public betting information shows that 79% of bets for this game have been placed on UCLA -3

(View College Basketball Bet Percentages).

``It could be a real advantage,'' UCLA point guard Darren Collison said Wednesday. ``You can gamble a lot more. You know where the ball is going and what spot they're trying to get to. You can get to that spot before they can even get there.''

The coaches tried to downplay the impact their knowledge of each other would have on the game, saying that video and scouting let them know all of their opponents as well as they do heading into Thursday's game between the second-seeded Bruins (28-5) and third-seeded Panthers (29-7).

``That's not any different,'' Howland said. ``We know the plays that Indiana ran, that Weber State ran, everybody we played. That's why you have really good staffs. You spend a lot of time in preparation for an opponent.''

There are a few notable differences to the styles of the teams. Pitt will play zone on occasion, while UCLA is committed to man-to-man. The offenses reflect each team's strength.

UCLA's revolves around its outstanding perimeter players: Collison, leading scorer Arron Afflalo and swingman Josh Shipp. Pitt runs much of its offense through Aaron Gray, a 7-foot pivot man, who can score inside as well as pass out of the double teams.

``It's kind of the same system but different,'' Shipp said. ``We have different personnel. We go against this stuff every day in practice. I think bottom line, it's going to come down to who plays harder and who executes.''

Howland said he would never play Pitt except when forced to in the NCAA tournament, saying he saw no benefit to going up against a close friend. This marked the third straight year the schools were placed in the same region of the tournament, but the first time they both survived long enough to meet on the floor.

It's made for an awkward week of preparation but hasn't stopped the almost daily phone calls between the coaches that have become habit over the years.

``I think it's inevitable it was going to happen,'' Dixon said. ``It hasn't changed (our relationship) at all. We've talked a couple of times, not too much about the game, just about families and different things besides that.''

The relationship dates back to when Howland recruited Dixon to play at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1980s. Dixon ended up at TCU when UCSB ran out of scholarships, but joined Howland as an assistant on the Gauchos' staff in 1991-92.

Howland then brought Dixon to Northern Arizona in 1994 after he got his first head coaching job and five years later lured him away from Hawaii to come to Pitt as an assistant. The two lived together their first four months in Pittsburgh before their families joined them, and the relationship has only grown.

Howland's daughter, Meredith, missed Pittsburgh and her friends so much after moving to the West Coast in 2003 that she returned six months later, re-enrolled in Pitt's nursing program, moved in with the Dixons and became a cheerleader.

Howland stayed at Dixon's parents' house in Southern California on recruiting trips in the past to save money and is so close to the family that he served as a pallbearer last year at the funeral of Dixon's sister, Maggie, the former Army women's coach.

``It's about a friendship more than a basketball business relationship,'' Dixon said. ``I think it's a family friendship, two guys that have been through some difficult times in recent years. We've both been there for each other. That's more the story to me than maybe the familiarity with the programs.''

There are only two players left at Pitt with ties to Howland. Forward Levon Kendall redshirted as a freshman during Howland's final year with the Panthers and Gray was one of Howland's last recruits at Pitt.

But a lot of what is left stems from what Howland helped build during his four years running the Panthers.

``It's going to be a little bit interesting when you're running up and down the court,'' Gray said. ``One end you see Coach Dixon, then you run down the other end and see Coach Howland. We do kind of the same stuff. You figure they're going to yell at their players about the same thing. It should be a fun game to not only play in, but for you guys to see.''

by: Marc Young - theSpread.com - Email Us

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