Johnny Dawkins and Jamie Dixon: Two coaches with the same initials and two coaches who have had success at Madison Square Garden. Dawkins’ University Central Florida team will meet Dixon’s TCU squad in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday.
Dixon noted that he has coached 41 games at The World’s Most Famous Arena when he lead Pittsburgh. “And you don’t play anybody bad here,” said Dixon, who won the 2008 Big East Tournament. “It’s not like you’re getting any Little Sisters of the Poor.”
Dawkins led Stanford to a pair of NIT titles. Dawkins took over a UCF team that had won 12 games last season. At the beginning of the tournament, the Knights saw there was a chance to win a few games and end up at MSG. “For these young men to have an opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden, are you kidding me,” Dawkins said. “Just like when I first played in it, something they reminded for the rest of their lives, so it’s a great opportunity to experience it.”
Dawkins knows about playing at the Mecca of basketball. In late November 1985, Dawkins and Duke played St. John’s in the preseason NIT. Dawkins hit the game-winning shot with 20 seconds remaining to give Duke a 71-70 win. “It was incredible. Incredible atmosphere,” Dawkins said. “Can you imagine playing St. John’s for the championship in the pre-season NIT in the Garden? It doesn’t get any better than that. Great environment. I remember terrific players. Walter Berry, Mark Jackson in that team and it was good for us. I think it helped propel us actually for that year going to the Final Four.”
Of the four teams in that pre-season NIT, Duke, Louisville and Kansas made the final four. Only the Redmen didn’t and they were a 1-seed in the tournament.
Emcee Fran Fraschilla feels that Dawkins is the most important player in Duke history. Dawkins was the national player of the year in 1986 and led Mike Kryzewski to his first final four.
While Duke was upset in the NCAA tournament, Dawkins has UCF in the NIT final four and his team his enjoying the city. But they still came to the city to win. “We’ve already talked about that,” said Dawkins, whose team went to Carmine’s Monday night. “We’re here to compete. We know what we’re here for. I want the guys to have a great experience, something they can always remember for the rest of their lives but also understand a big part of that experienced and why we’re here to compete.”
Dixon never played at the Garden while at TCU in the mid-80s, although he got to play overseas on the NIT All-Star team. And he certainly got a good view of the Garden from the sidelines as he led Pittsburgh to four Big East title games. Dixon coached at Pittsburgh from 2003-16, with most of those seasons in the Big East. Now he’s returned with TCU. The team practiced at West Point, where Dixon’s sister Maggie coached before passing away in 2006. The coach let his team go out Monday and gave them a curfew so as to get the tourist adjective out of the way. But coming to the big city took more of his focus than adjusting to MSG.
“It’s Manhattan. It’s the drive down,” Dixon said. “The stuff before the game is, to me, more the challenge.”
There’s going to be a pretty good challenge when Dawkins and Dixon are coaching against each other on the sidelines, too.