27 December 2011
This is not the way it's supposed to work. Football regular season and the begining of basketball season have a slight overlap. It's a hectic week or two, but manageable. Then basketball ends, football hopefully gets invited to a bowl game, and we get to ease into full-time basketball coverage. Football plays it's bowl as conference play starts, and then it's pretty much all hoops through April. Then it's spring football, recruiting, Greentree and training camp. Lather, rinse repeated as needed. But of course, the past two seasons haven't gone according to plan. The past two Decembers, Pitt football has been on the coaching prowl. And that means basketball has been neglected.
With Pitt moving to Big East play tonight, a brief, belated recap of the past week or so.
With minutes available under the hoop in the post-Birch Era (Can 10 games be an era?), Talib Zanna made the most of his opportunity with a career high 12 points and 14 boards against South Carolina State (via the Trib):
He played a season-high 26 minutes against South Carolina State and was an impressive force around the basket.
Physically stronger than he was a year ago, Zanna is second in the team in rebounding (64, 5.8 per game).
Coach Jamie Dixon said Zanna is finishing plays better than he was last season, but there's nothing he appreciates more than good defense. And Zanna is giving his coach what he likes.
"Defensively, I think he really understands what we are doing, guarding the ball screens, post defense, help-side defense," Dixon said. "He has really improved the most in those areas."
Zanna attributes it to his conditioning as a Panther (via the PG):
"We know coach [Jamie] Dixon is a tough coach to play for," Zanna said. "You have to come in and give all you got every day. When I came in it was kind of tough. Everybody was bigger than me. I was taller, but they were all bigger and stronger than me. In practice, they would push you around and talk all kinds of stuff. It was frustrating.
"I just had to get in the weight room and get stronger and get to their level. Once you're in that level you have that confidence to challenge whoever is trying to bully you. Not bully you but try to push you around."
And then he recalled a pretty telling story from practice (via):
Zanna saw that same frustration with Birch. Pitt's practices brought Birch to tears on more than one occasion, Zanna said. He described how a hand injury brought Birch to tears.
"His wrist and hands were banged up," Zanna said. "He banged it like three times in a row. There was a lot of pain. He couldn't sustain the pain so he just had to cry. I don't even know if I would say it was crying, but if you looked at his face it looked like he was crying. This program might have been too tough for him. I think that's why he left."
Zanna said he never spoke to Birch about attempting to stick it out. Birch was a bit of a loner and did not hang out with many others on the team.
"It's a real shame," Zanna said. "He made Coach Dixon look bad. That was up to him. It was his own decision. If he wanted to move on because he wanted more playing time that was up to him. We just have to move on and let him do his stuff. We'll be fine without him, or with him."
Zanna went through his adjustment period and stands to benefit more than anyone else now that Birch is gone. No one at Pitt was more affected by Birch's decision to come to Pitt a year earlier than expected than Zanna.
Khem kinda-maybe responded to that in a now deleted tweet about "low-caliber players" talking about him, but I'm not really going to try to interpret the Twitter tea-leaves, so take that for what it's worth.
After a nice win against SC State and a domination of a woefully over-matched St. Francis team, Pitt ineplictably fell to Wagner a middle-tier NEC team (the NEC is where Robert Morris plays). The Panthers were lethargic the first half and most of the second until a late spark nearly let them steal the game away (via the PG):
Junior center Dante Taylor said there was a common denominator to the losses to Long Beach State and Wagner.
"Both teams played harder than us and beat us outright," Taylor said. "We didn't have a lot of intensity and we didn't respond well."
Wagner is not a program that is known for upsets. The victory Friday night was the first against a ranked opponent since 1978.
The loss was noteworthy for another reason. Pitt had won all 70 of its previous games against teams from the Northeast Conference, including its first two this season against Robert Morris and Saint Francis.
Wagner became the first team from the NEC to beat a team from the Big East since 2006. The conference was 0-14 against Big East teams this season.
The Seahawks did it by pressuring Pitt into 18 turnovers and forcing the Panthers out of rhythm on offense. Pitt senior Ashton Gibbs finished with 14 points, but he was 5 for 16 from the field and was shut out in the first half, when the Seahawks took command of the game.
Gibbs has been far, far below his usual incredible self ever since he took over the point guard position for the injured Tray Woodall. He's shooting 29.5% from beyond the arc since Woodall went down. Compare that to the fantastic 49% he shot from there last season when for all intents and purposes Brad Wanamaker was running the offense. Gibbs was 0-for-7 from three in the first half and scored his first points of the game after halftime. Woodall's return is desperately needed for the Panthers (via the Trib):
But the loss to Wagner proved this much: Pitt needs point guard Tray Woodall to steer its offense through choppy waters, and the sea was unsettled at the Pete almost from start to finish.
"Tray is our leader on the court," forward Lamar Patterson said. "He calms us down out there."
With senior Ashton Gibbs playing point guard while Woodall missed his sixth consecutive game with a groin injury, Pitt committed 18 turnovers -- including three in a row near the end, when the Panthers tried to rally from a four-point deficit.
The good news is that his return may be as early as tonight.
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