It all came so easily for Talib Zanna early in the season and perhaps that is the problem now.
His teammates were setting him up for layups and dunks. He displayed a deft touch in his mid-range game and knocked down 75 percent of his free throws in non-conference play.
Now everything seems so difficult for the 6-foot-9 native of Nigeria. Taller and longer defenders are making it more difficult to get his shot off inside, and those mid-range jumpers and free throws that were falling against non-league foes are missing the mark against Big East opponents.
Zanna's dip in production has been so dramatic, it bears spelling out in raw numbers.
• After scoring in double figures nine times in the 13 non-conference games, he has reached double figures twice in the first nine conference games. His field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and rebounding all have decreased along with his scoring.
Zanna averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the 13 non-conference games. In Big East games, he is averaging 8.3 points and 4.6 rebounds.
• After shooting 65.3 percent in non-league games, he is shooting 42 percent in conference play.
• After shooting 75 percent from the free-throw line in non-league games, he is shooting 53 percent from the line in conference play.
The slump has become more pronounced the past three weeks. Since going 7 for 9 from the field and scoring 15 points in Pitt's victory at Georgetown, Zanna is 12 for 44 (28 percent) from the field and averaging 5.8 points the past six games. He is coming off a four-point effort Monday at Louisville in which he was 2 for 9 from the field.
"It's the Big East, so the defense will improve," said Zanna, who, despite the slump, remains the team's leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. "I just have to be patient and let the game come to me. Sometimes, I rush my shots. I just have to take my time and make plays and make my teammates better."
Zanna spoke of the Big East's bigger and stronger post players pushing him off the blocks and not allowing him to get the inside scoring position he enjoyed earlier in the season. He also mentioned how his mid-range game has suffered because teams are better defending the ball screens that used to get him open, and opposing players are doing a better job of contesting his shots.
But don't count Pitt coach Jamie Dixon among the concerned. He is convinced Zanna's slump will end soon because his work ethic remains strong.
"He's active," Dixon said. "He's playing hard. He's coming up with loose balls and rebounds. It's not effort. Everyone knows how hard he plays. He's gotten the right shots and has taken, for the most part, good shots. We've talked about rushing shots and not being balanced, not being gathered, not stepping through. But the effort is there and good things will happen when you're doing the things he's doing.
"You'll have some games where things won't go as well as you want. He got good touches against Louisville early and didn't get the results he had been getting. We're going to do the same things going forward. We have to get the ball inside to him. We have to get him in the right spot, and he'll get offensive rebounds because he's been getting those all the way through."
Zanna will get plenty of chances Saturday afternoon against No. 6 Syracuse at Petersen Events Center. The power forward in Pitt's zone offense is often the key to solving the 2-3 zone Orange coach Jim Boeheim employs.
"He's very important," junior forward Lamar Patterson said of Zanna's role against Syracuse. "He's capable of knocking down that mid-range jump shot. To beat the zone, we have to get the ball inside and he's our big who's going to be able to do it. Between him and J.J. [Moore], we're going to expect a lot out of them, hitting that mid-range shot or making a play out of the high post.
"I think it's mental with him. He'll be fine. That's a player I don't worry about. He works very hard. He just has to get it going again."
Moore has to get his game going again, too. He was the team's third-leading scorer entering Big East play, but his average has dipped to 8.7 points per game. Like Zanna, he has reached double figures in scoring twice in conference play. He is averaging 6.1 per game in the past seven.
"Their numbers were pretty impressive early on," Dixon said. "We were getting rebounding and defense and scoring. We were excited about it and recognized it as a strength. Obviously, their [numbers] haven't been as high in recent games, but we won a lot of those games.
"We have to get [Zanna] the ball in the right spot. In some games they're not going to fall. I expect him to be active and aggressive and back to scoring baskets at the percentage he was. He was shooting such a high percentage and finishing at such a high rate that you wondered if that was going continue all the way through. There are going to be some games where he doesn't measure up to those numbers. But his effort has been tremendous. His effort and energy haven't changed at all."mobilehome - pittsports
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 1, 2013 5:00 AM