The best-laid plans are the ones that, well, are flexible enough to change if they don't work out. That was the position Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon apparently took Tuesday night at the Petersen Events Center, where the Panthers eventually rolled to a 75-54 victory against Fresno State.
The Bulldogs had their way with the Panthers early, so Dixon quickly scrapped the ferocious man-to-man defense he has built his program on and switched to a 2-3 zone.
It worked nearly to perfection in the first half, catching the Bulldogs -- and just about everyone who has watched Pitt the past 12 years, including the crowd of 8,543 -- off guard.
The Bulldogs hit their first three shots, including two 3-pointers, and led, 8-2, early before Dixon changed defenses. Suddenly, the Panthers turned impenetrable.
That sparked a 14-7 run that put Pitt ahead, 16-15, with 10:17 left in the half. From there, the Panthers allowed one more basket -- a 3-pointer by Allen Huddleston -- before halftime.
Pitt led, 35-18, at the half and both coaches pointed to the unexpected switch to the zone as the biggest factor in the game.
"Pitt is a program that has hung their hat on defense and rebounding for a long time," Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said.
"But they did something that we didn't expect or see a lot from them. They have been a man-to-man team, but they did a great job with their zone.
"[The zone] affected us, we didn't do a good job of attacking it and we didn't take advantage of it in the first half. We didn't expect them to play it as their primary defense. They have used it inbounds situations but not for an extended period of time."
Dixon said he began to consider using more zone a few years ago when the 3-point line was moved back a foot and used it more last year for a variety of reasons.
He said the combination of personnel and the new emphasis on foul calls and hand-checking has made it clear to him that they could play a lot more zone defense this year and this was a good time to start.
"I was obviously really happy with the first half and how we responded after being down," Dixon said. "The zone was good for us. I think we have the personnel for it and our man-to-man was not where it needed to be.
"I had a feeling we would have to use some zone because they would be hard to guard with their four guards.
"But we have bigger guards than we ever have in James [Robinson] and Cameron [Wright] and we have pretty good size and athleticism. The only question was whether we could -- and can -- rebound out of it, and we obviously did a good job there, as well."
Pitt certainly didn't have any issues rebounding out of the zone as Fresno State had no offensive rebounds in the first half and five the entire game. The Panthers won the rebounding battle, 48-25, and they held Fresno State to 37 percent shooting (19 of 51), including 26 percent from the three-point line (6 of 23).
A lot of that rebounding edge had to do with the Panthers' size advantage and strength under the basket but part of it was that their frontcourt players were relentless.
"Jamel [Artis] has become scrappier in past two weeks, Michael [Young] has always had that scrappiness," Dixon said.
"They are young, they are going to continue to improve. Mike has improved, Jamel has had two really good weeks. He is a very talented player, but I don't think rebounding was a high priority when he got here so I have kind of brought it to his attention."
The rebounding and defense overshadowed the fact that the Panthers had their worst 3-point shooting night in school history (0 for 11). But with 18 offensive rebounds that didn't much matter.
Talib Zanna led the Panthers with 19 points and 10 rebounds and Wright added 13 and 6.
The Bulldogs were led by Paul Watson, who scored 18.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720 or Twitter: @paulzeise