Pitt's Talib Zanna broke out of a slump Sunday against Villanova in the Panthers' victory in the home finale.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It wasn't that long ago that one could argue that Talib Zanna had become Pitt's best player. The numbers Zanna posted in the first 16 games of the season made a strong case for it.
Zanna started the season like gangbusters, making 63 percent of his shots (80 for 127) and averaging a team-leading 13.2 points per game through the first two months of the season.
Then, almost inexplicably, Zanna's production took a precipitous drop. Over the next 13 games, the 6-foot-9 power forward shot 29 percent (23 for 78) and averaged just 5.5 points per game.
Zanna went from being coach Jamie Dixon's most effective starter to his most ineffective in the span of six weeks.
On Sunday, in the final home game of the season, Zanna rekindled hopes that he can become a valuable part of the Panthers offense in the postseason after scoring 14 points and pulling down a career-high 19 rebounds in Pitt's 73-64 overtime victory against Villanova.
"It was great to see him have a great overtime and a great game," senior guard Tray Woodall said. "He works extremely hard. He's one of those guys who can go bad sometimes and not have great games. But he comes in every day and works. For a guy like that, to come out and have these results, it's a great feeling for him."
It was hard to identify a low point for Zanna during his slump because there were so many games that qualified. There was a 1-for-9, 3-point outing in a home loss to Marquette, the first signal that something might be amiss. The next game at Villanova he did not make a basket for the first time all season and finished with four points. There was a 2-for-9 performance in a loss at Louisville, a 1-for-6 outing in a win against Seton Hall and an 0-for-3 game in a home loss to Notre Dame.
Zanna might have lost confidence during the slump, but one thing that never wavered was his work ethic. Dixon and Zanna's teammates attested to that several times over the past few weeks.
It's one of the reasons Dixon didn't bench Zanna and kept him in the starting lineup. Zanna rewarded Dixon for his patience against the Wildcats.
"His numbers haven't been as good, but he hasn't stopped working," Dixon said. "That's what we expect from Talib. His physicality, his toughness and his relentlessness came out [Sunday]."
Now the hope is Zanna can carry the momentum into the final regular-season game Saturday at DePaul and then the postseason.
There are plenty of theories for Zanna's recent struggles. Some figure he simply feasted off the weaker competition the non-conference scheduled provided and his performances in Big East Conference games are more reflective of the type of player he is.
There might be some truth in that. Zanna has had a difficult time getting his shots off inside against the bigger and stronger opponents in conference play. That was the case for much of the game on Sunday, too. He only accounted for five points on 2-of-6 shooting in regulation.
In overtime, Zanna scored the first seven points on a three-point play, two free throws and a short jumper. Dixon said playing power forward and center helped Zanna against Villanova.
Zanna got to play extended minutes because of an injury to starting center Steven Adams. He started at power forward and played 21 minutes there. He also played 16 minutes at center when Dante Taylor, who started in place of Adams, left the game to rest.
"He played a little more [center] than usual," Dixon said. "That helps him at times. He sometimes has a slower guy, or a guy who is not as agile, on him and that benefits him."
Through his struggles, Zanna said he was buoyed by his teammates, specifically Woodall whom, he said, never lost faith in him.
"If you're down, Tray will try to pick you up," Zanna said. "He's a good leader. My team is always there for me. They're always saying keep your head up. I kept crashing the glass. The ball kept falling in my hands."
The ball fell in his hands 19 times against Villanova for one of the best single-game rebounding performances in school history. The 19 rebounds were the most for a Pitt player in four seasons. In 2009, DeJuan Blair had 23 in a game against Connecticut.
"Talib Zanna was a beast, just a beast," Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the game.
Zanna's rebounding was the most impressive aspect of his game against the Wildcats. While nine of his points came in overtime, Zanna already had set his career-high in rebounds in regulation. He had 16 of his 19 in the first 40 minutes, eclipsing his previous high of 15, set against Robert Morris last season.
It was Zanna's second double-double of the season and the sixth of his career. His teammates and coaches are hoping it's not the last.