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4-1-Zoo: Pitt’s Most Important Piece Is Back, Tray Woodall

By: Chris Gates
(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN) — The way teams in this town deal with adversity isn’t fair.

I mean, really. Where else have you seen a team’s best player go down on multiple occasions in different sports and the team barely suffer?

Look at the Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four games at the beginning of the 2010 season and we all expected  something like a 1-3 start. We didn’t know how the team would respond, or if it would be able to rebound and make the playoffs.

Yea, well, that Steelers team went 3-1 under quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch. Roethlisberger came back and the Steelers ended up in the Super Bowl at year’s end.

And the Penguins. Sidney Crosby sat out the second half of last season — along with many other key players in the lineup — and coach Dan Bylsma engineered his team to the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and home-ice advantage in the first round.

The Pens are dealing with a similar situation this year — Crosby has played just eight games — and Evgeni Malkin has taken over as the best player in the world. Pittsburgh is riding a seven-game winning streak at the All-Star break.

That’s not reality.

Reality is when a team loses its best player and the it crumbles without him. He is the rock that holds the group together, and without him each player is forced to play outside of his game to try and pick up the slack.

A great of example of this is the Indianapolis Colts without Peyton Manning.

Another great example is Pitt without point guard Tray Woodall. Everybody valued Woodall going into the season, but I’m not sure anyone could have predicted how much of an impact he had on Pitt’s success until he missed a month’s time to an abdominal injury.

In that time Pitt went on an eight-game losing streak. It started the season 0-7 in Big East play. It dropped out of the top 25 for the first time in over 40 weeks.

In a word, it crumbled.

Woodall attempted a return against Notre Dame Dec. 27, but he was clearly still hampered by his injury and was held off the scoresheet. He went scoreless in his next game back, too, against Louisville on Saturday.

But Wednesday against Providence, Woodall shook off the rust and looked a lot like the player Pitt fans have grown accustomed to seeing (and possibly taken for granted). He was one assist away from a  double-double with 17 points and nine assists, shooting 4-of-4 from 3-point range.

Pitt had just 10 turnovers, which is below coach Jamie Dixon’s target of 12 or fewer a game. It shot 49.2 percent from the field, one of the best efforts all season.

Ashton Gibbs – who has struggled shooting all season, especially with Woodall out of the lineup as he was forced to run the point — scored 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting.

“There’s definitely more space with him out there,” Gibbs said. “(Woodall’s) a playmaker, but at the same time he’s a scoring option, too. The defense has to respect him. It opens up opportunities for me. I’m glad he’s back. Now, the best is yet to come for him and this team.”

After the game, Dixon said he was nowhere near surprised that Woodall’s return could have such an impact.

“It reaffirmed that point guard is important, but I kind of knew that beforehand,” Dixon said. “Especially when you have a young group. We’ve just got to keep battling and keep moving forward.”

Now, this doesn’t mean things are fixed and Pitt is primed for a Big East title run. The Panthers still have a ton of work to do, and this was just a win over Providence.

But it showed us two things. It showed us truly how valuable Woodall is and how much Pitt can improve with him in the lineup.

“Guys have been doing a great job of getting in the gym and get up extra shots,” Woodall said. “Coach Dixon has been positive the whole time. He’s been telling us we were one of the three best 3-point shooting teams in the country, and we can definitely get back to that because we have a lot of great shooters who work on their craft.

“I think we can definitely get back there.”

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog
Twitter.com/Chris_Gates
Chris.Gates@cbsradio.com