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Zanna emerges as centerpiece of Pitt men's basketball team

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
Pitt's Talib Zanna (left) gets a rebound over Slippery Rock's Jordan Grady in the first half of an exhibition game Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt's Talib Zanna (left0 dunks over Slippery Rock's Tabari Perry in the first half of an exhibition game Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Petersen Events Center.

Talib Zanna doesn't know how many stairs are inside Petersen Events Center, only that it is 21 steps to the top.

The Pitt fifth-year senior ran up them all summer, climbing all 17 sets to strengthen his stamina for his final season.

“It's the best thing you can do. It makes your legs stronger. You can run faster, jump higher, cut quicker,” Zanna said. “I tried different stuff to keep my body in shape.

“It's going to make a lot of difference, the way I run the floor and play physical. Other schools might have a problem with me in the low post. I have confidence in myself. I worked my tail off this summer. I want this so bad. I want to win. I can feel it.”

The 6-foot-9, 230-pound native Nigerian will be the centerpiece for the Panthers in their inaugural ACC season. After starting every game last season at power forward, Zanna moved to the post to replace 7-footer Steven Adams.

“I think he's going to have his best year this year, and I think playing the ‘five' will have a big impact on that,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “I think he's going to be a hard matchup for a lot of guys because of his quickness and his versatility. We're excited about him. I think he's really worked to put himself in good position.”

Zanna averaged 9.6 points and 6.1 rebounds as a junior, respectable numbers given that he scored in double figures 14 times in 33 games and had four double-digit rebounding games. His best performance was a 14-point, 19-rebound effort in an overtime victory over Villanova, a game Zanna spent mostly at center.

Yet it was a disappointing drop-off from his 13.2 scoring average through the first 13 games, when he scored 20 points three times.

“He really was playing well last year and then he hit a stretch where his numbers ... I have no explanation,” Dixon said. “He went from making free throws to not making layups to not finishing as well, but he's in great shape.”

Zanna considers it a case of Sam Young Syndrome, fatigue caused by a failure to give his body the rest it needed.

“Last year, I'm going to be honest, I didn't have enough rest all the way through the Big East,” Zanna said. “I should have rested my body. I just stayed in the gym, even when we had days off. I think my body wore down. I had to take care of my body. Brandin Knight told me, ‘You can't be at the gym every day. You need to rest your body.' ”

So Zanna worked harder on his conditioning this summer, knowing he would be counted on heavily inside the paint. He regularly wins team sprints, and the plan is for Zanna to wear down opposing big men by making them chase him downcourt.

“I think it's a plus on our side because he's physical enough to bang with the big guys, but I don't know if they'll be able to run with him,” said Lamar Patterson, a fellow fifth-year senior swingman. “If we've got five guys crashing the defensive glass and getting rebounds, he's going to be the first guy down.

“He just runs hard. He anticipates it. Once he sees he's not getting the rebound and one of us is getting the rebound, he's gone. There's plenty of times in practice when I'm on the fast break and it's just me and him and I got the rebound at the 3-point line. I'm like, how in the heck did you get all the way down here? It's amazing.”

More surprising is that the soft-spoken Zanna is attempting to take on a leadership role, making a concerted effort to be more outspoken.

“He's leading with his work ethic, clearly, but he's also trying to speak up and be a vocal leader. That's not in his comfort zone, but he's trying,” Dixon said of Zanna.

“Everything he's doing, he's trying to be the best player he can be and help us have the best year we can have.”

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