Talib Zanna was a slightly built player with an international background when he came to Pitt in 2009. A native of Nigeria, Zanna spent the majority of his youth playing basketball outside of the United States before finishing high school in Washington.
Seemed like he would be a good person to ask about adjusting to the culture of college basketball American-style -- specifically the rugged Pitt style -- in the wake of Montreal native Khem Birch's decision to leave the team.
Zanna, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound redshirt sophomore, said it took him a full year to get used to the rough practices and trash-talking that takes place during a typical Pitt practice. Zanna eventually adjusted and is now giving it in practice -- physically and verbally -- as much as the other player.
"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."
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.
Birch, a McDonald's All-American, was going to be Pitt's power forward next season once Steve Adams, another elite post player, set foot on campus. Now, with Birch gone, Zanna's future with the Panthers in the short term and the long term looks a whole lot better than it did a week ago.
Zanna said he never looked at it that way.
"To me, I didn't have a problem with that," Zanna said of Birch's decision to reclassify.
Zanna registered his third career double-double Saturday against South Carolina State, the first game without Birch. Zanna will see his minutes continue to increase this season as the top reserve at center and power forward. And if he plays well, he will carve himself a place as the starter at power forward next season because three-year starter Nasir Robinson graduates.
Dixon said Zanna, who is averaging 5.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, was Pitt's most consistent post player throughout the preseason, and he continues to be impressed with Zanna's game.
"He's been playing really well," Dixon said. "I think it's been foul trouble, or missing some shots or not making some free throws that have kept him from putting up some even bigger numbers. I'm real happy with how he's playing."
NOTE -- Junior point guard Tray Woodall did skill work Monday and his rehabilitation is being ramped up. Dixon said it is time to start thinking about a target date for his return. ... Zanna was limping after practice with a toe injury, but he said he would play tonight against Saint Francis, Pa. ... Dixon said a few other players are banged up, but believed all would be ready to play against the Red Flash. ... Guard Ashton Gibbs was named to the Bob Cousy Award watch list.
Now, with Khem Birch gone, Talib Zanna's future with the Panthers in the short term and the long term looks a whole lot better than it did a week ago. -->
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published December 20, 2011 5:00 AM