Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon says it every October. Out of the blue, a player no one outside the program expects to have a major impact breaks out and develops into a marquee player.
It happens at Pitt more than other places because players often redshirt, learn the system and wait their turn behind other talented players.
Aaron Gray barely played as a freshman and sophomore when Chris Taft was starting in front of him, but when Taft left early for the NBA, Gray grabbed his opportunity and averaged 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds as a junior. Sam Young did it, too, going from 7.2 points per game as a sophomore when Levon Kendall was ahead of him on the depth chart to 18.1 as a junior when he was a full-time starter.
There were lots of predictions for Pitt's breakout player this season, but almost no one had junior forward Talib Zanna tabbed for that role.
- Matchup: Howard (1-5) vs. Pitt (5-1), 7 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.
- TV, Radio, Internet: Pitt Panthers Television (Comcast Ch. 188 or 210), KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
- Pitt: Beat Delaware, 85-59, in the consolation game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. ... Five players scored in double figures vs. Delaware. ... Had a season-high 25 assists vs. the Blue Hens. ... Led by junior F Talib Zanna (13.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), senior G Tray Woodall (12.3 ppg, 6.3 apg) and junior F J.J. Moore (11.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg).
- Howard: Picked up first victory of the season Sunday, beating Wilmington, 66-50. ... Has yet to score more than 67 points in a game. ... Averaging 51.6 points per game, which is 342nd out of 347 teams in Division I. ... Scored 36 points in a loss to Iowa, the only other team the Bison, of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, played from a major conference. ... Led by senior G Calvin Thompson (14.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and sophomore G Simuel Frazier (9.7 ppg, 3.3 apg).
- Hidden stat: Pitt's assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.2 and ranks first in the Big East Conference. Freshman point guard James Robinson has only three turnovers in six games.
Zanna, who played in a reserve role for much of last season behind Nasir Robinson, is seizing his chance to follow in the footsteps of Gray, Young and many others before him.
Zanna is Pitt's leading scorer and rebounder through the first six games. He has more than doubled his scoring output from last season, going from 6.3 points to 13.5 per game. He also is averaging 5.7 rebounds per game, with almost three per game coming from offensive rebounds.
What's most impressive about Zanna's early season performance is that he is sharing the power forward position with J.J. Moore, Pitt's third-leading scorer. Zanna is playing 22 minutes per game, which is fourth on the team.
"He's just gotten better," Dixon said. "He works extremely hard. I think he's in some ways kept his game simpler. That's what I've talked to him about, simplifying his game. No need to expand it, do what you do well. That's what I think he's done best. He's worked hard, his body is better, he's in better shape. He runs endlessly and just wears people down running the floor."
Dixon also noted that Zanna carried over some strong momentum from the end of last season when he became a more consistent player. In the College Basketball Invitational, the postseason tournament the Panthers won after failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament, Zanna averaged 11.8 points and 7 rebounds over the course of the CBI's six games.
Over the summer, Zanna worked hard on his mid-range game and his low-post repertoire. He has shown some ability to score in the low post and from offensive rebounds, but he has been particularly adept at making mid-range jumpers.
Zanna's smooth shooting stroke is impressive. He is shooting a team-best 68.8 percent even though many of his shot attempts are short jumpers.
"I practiced during the summer, in the morning, at night after class," said Zanna, who is 6 feet 9 and 230 pounds. "It was something I needed to work on with the kind of offense we're running this year. I just put a lot of time in."
Dixon tweaked the offense a bit over the summer. One byproduct is more shot opportunities for the power forwards. Whereas Robinson was almost strictly a low-post player who feasted off offensive rebounds, Zanna and Moore have the ability to play inside and outside.
Zanna's dual-threat ability had Delaware coach Monte Ross impressed after Pitt's 85-59 victory against the Blue Hens Friday at the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York.
"He is probably more comfortable facing up rather than posting up," Ross said. "But he is a very physical player. You don't get that combination a lot -- a guy that likes to shoot jump shots, can score inside, but probably doesn't favor that. He's still physical inside. He's a long, athletic body that I'm sure is what you need to be competitive in the Big East and be able to be a good team."
Zanna has been an asset in other areas, too. He was named the team's defensive player of the year last season and earned the starting position over Moore this season because Dixon wanted his top defenders on the floor to begin games. He also is a strong free-throw shooter, making 79 percent, an excellent percentage for a post player.
If Zanna is feeling any extra pressure as the team's top scorer, he's not showing it. When asked about being in that role, he said: "I'm not even worried about that. I just want to play hard. This year we have to prove a lot of people wrong."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published November 27, 2012 5:00 AM