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Panther Hollow: Resilient Pitt Still ‘Zoning’ Out

By Matt Popchock
Talib Zanna

Talib Zanna led the Panthers with 16 points and five rebounds Saturday. (File photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — If the 1,500th win in Pitt history was a remotely accurate forecast for the Panthers–and their latest non-conference victims–we know that both teams, going forward, must rely on perimeter shooting…a lot.

Sure, the Panthers got the job done, on the exterior and interior, in a 74-61 decision over Detroit at the Petersen Events Center Saturday night, but for what shall we most remember these Titans?

We shall remember the formulaic nature of victory No. 7 on the 2012-13 slate.

Pitt couldn’t find its umbrella to guard against the raining threes of No. 3, though it did eventually wash out the offensive prowess of the latest NBA prospect to visit Oakland.

The bottom line is, the Panthers, after initially seeing a man-to-man look, struggled mightily against a 2-3 zone in the first half, and needed a second-half rally, including those long-range buckets, and a strong transition game to overcome a game-high 24 points (7-of-13) by Ray McCallum.

“They came out making threes, which is exactly what we talked about not letting them do, and they made six to start the game. I’ve said in past weeks we weren’t good enough against the zone, but most teams aren’t. We’ll get better at it, and, in the second half, we did,” head coach Jamie Dixon said.

McCallum, primarily matched up against freshman guard James Robinson, managed only seven second-half points. He did not make a field goal in the half until his fourth and final three-pointer fell with just over ten minutes left. The Titans, as a team, shot an icy 32% for the period.

“I think Pitt wanted to give him special attention. He did a great job [against Robinson], but Pitt is such a great help-defensive team. On the ball screens, their bigs get out, and they move and do a good job slowing down dribblers,” said Detroit head coach Ray McCallum Sr. “They made him work, and adjust, and I think it kind of wore him down a little bit. It was tough for us to find other guys to score. Credit their team defense.”

“It’s easy for me when I have a lot of other great players on the court. I try to rely on them a lot. I know if I look for them, they’re going to try and feed me,” said Robinson.

Meanwhile, Robinson, primarily matched up against the junior, went 5-of-9 from the field and finished with 11 points and six assists, making him one of four Pitt starters in double figures.

“We pretty much stayed with the same game plan,” Robinson explained. “We ran the court, and we were able to swing the ball a little faster, and get their defense moving, attack the gaps, and that led to some open shots.”

Forward Talib Zanna finally made a few, which helped. Although Pitt jumped out to a 5-0 lead, he missed dirt-simple looks early on, including a dunk, that could have shrunk Detroit’s 37-29 halftime advantage.

But Zanna still finished with a team-best 16 points, going 10-of-11 from the line, and five rebounds. The Panthers, in the paint, outscored the Titans, 28-18.

“There were better ball reversals, and we were better at getting in the lane, getting more penetration. Our big guys are struggling right now against the zone, and I’ve got to do a better job with it,” Dixon said. “I’ve got to do a better job coaching them, getting them in the right place, and getting them to understand what we’re trying to do.”

Detroit went on a 20-4 first-half run and led by as many as 13, and as Pitt got outworked inside, it needed the steady hand of senior guard Tray Woodall, who ended with 14 (5-of-7) despite early foul trouble, to carry them through that drought.

“I wanted to pick the team up. It’s not usually how I do my scoring, but I just wanted to make sure I knocked some shots down, and be aggressive,” said Woodall after helping the Panthers go 8-of-17 beyond the arc with four three-pointers.

But why does penetrating the zone remain such a chore for a team with a higher offensive ceiling than a year ago?

After a strikingly similar win over Howard on Tuesday, Dixon noted his team’s lack of textbook, Big-East-like domination under the glass. Finally, Pitt did win a rebounding battle again, but only by a 31-30 count this time, and Woodall accepts responsibility.

“I think I need to get more rebounds. I let [forward Evan Briunsma] horse me a couple times. That’s uncharacteristic of me, and even though I had three fouls, I needed to go in there and get more rebounds. But as a team, in the second half, you saw how much guys wanted to get in there, and they played that much harder,” he explained. “It’s tough getting used to playing our new style of offense, and getting into better positions to get offensive rebounds.”

Furthermore, when the Titans took away the paint, Dixon said his team had to spread them thin.

“It started with the reversals of the ball. At first we were too slow-moving with our perimeter guys. In the second half, we were getting more penetration, usually off screens, and getting the ball inside,” he explained.

Pitt has yet to do it for forty minutes. If it can’t, and if the production from the backcourt slips, the Panthers will slip in status.

“It’s a ‘sagging’ zone. It’s what we’ve faced before. It’s really in the lane. We did a good job not simply settling for threes on the first pass, especially in the second half, when all our threes came off penetration,” Dixon elaborated. “That was probably the biggest thing. We’ve just got to work on it more, because our guys aren’t comfortable. We’ve faced more sagging 2-3 zones.

As future opponents learn–or think they’ve learned–how to take Pitt out of its comfort zone, the zone will probably be faced far more.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)