Double Dribble | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Double Dribble

Can Pitt, like Tennessee, build synergy in men's and women's basketball?

It's my favorite time of the year: Spring is around the corner, hockey is in a pre-playoff frenzy, and the most consistently exciting event of the year is about to tip off.

I'm talking, of course, about March Madness. Luckily for you, the NCAA selection committee has not convened at the time of this writing, so I'm precluded from adding to the already ubiquitous and overly self-important March Madness preview articles.

And on some level, it doesn't really matter which teams are favored or which conference got jobbed. We'll watch no matter who is playing. We watch because most of us like seeing a little school take down a big one. We watch because school spirit is infectious. And despite the fact that I live in one of the great sports cities in America, I watch to see what other folks are doing.

In fact, while I'm very rarely envious of another area's sports mojo, this year I covet the atmosphere surrounding the University of Tennessee basketball programs. Both of them.

We all know about Pat Summitt, the greatest women's college basketball coach of all time. (I think she's in the gender-blind team photo of best college basketball coaches, period.) But with the gregarious and self-deprecating Bruce Pearl breathing life into a previously inert men's program, they've got a good thing going down there in Tennessee. And I'm not just talking about win/loss records.

At the end of January, Pearl showed up with a group of his players to cheer on the women Volunteers in their game against No. 1-ranked Duke. Pearl himself was shirtless, chest and face painted; he was the "V" in "Go Vols."

A month later, the Grande Dame of the women's game returned the favor. Summitt showed up for the men's showdown with last year's national champion -- and top-10-ranked rival -- the Florida Gators. Summitt was clad in a cheerleader costume and feathered hat, leading the crowd in singing "Rocky Top," the traditional Tennessee fight song. She even got atop the cheerleader pyramid.

Tennessee won in a shocker ... which just goes to show that you can never underestimate the power of Pat.

Taken together, these may be my all-time favorite moments in college basketball history. Summitt's support for the men has lent them some of the legitimacy and gravitas they've lacked for so long. And Pearl's sense of showmanship brought out a side of Pat Summitt that nobody had ever seen publicly.

It's this kind of stuff that makes college sports great.

I'm not hoping for a copy-cat moment from Pitt's coaches, Jamie Dixon and Agnus Berenato. (Although Dixon would probably look better than Pearl sans shirt ... and Agnus is bound to have a more melodious singing voice than Summitt.) But the men's and women's programs can feed off each other, building excitement for both.

Just as importantly, the coaches here, like those in Tennessee, are both good folks. Having spoken to Berenato, she's accessible and ebullient. As for Dixon, all he's done is reach 100 wins in four seasons. Only 14 other coaches in NCAA Division I basketball history have reached 100 wins faster. He did it in only 126 games, despite playing with team rosters that lacked any pure shooters or potential NBA'ers other than Aaron Gray this year.

In the current heady sports climate, it's easy to forget that Pitt's teams were both regularly on the outside looking in at this time of year. But the men are now a mortal lock for the tourney every year, and the women are going for the first time since God was young. The Petersen Events Center plays host to the first two rounds of the women's tourney on March 18 and 20. And I've decided to enjoy the ride this year.

I won't be disappointed no matter what: If both Berenato's and Dixon's squads stumble, I've got the lyrics to "Rocky Top" downloaded.

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