Pitt

Panther Hollow: A Freaky Friday In A Wednesday Night Win

By Matt Popchock
Dante Taylor

(File Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — One of the most common knocks against Jamie Dixon is he doesn’t think outside his own metaphorical box, insisting all the basketball world’s problems can be solved by simply boxing out. Imagine the surprise of his critics when, together, he and the Panthers did both.

“Coach was giving us free reign to go out and play,” said senior guard Tray Woodall after leading Pitt with 14 points, his eighth consecutive game in double figures, and contributing to a game-changing second-half run.

Beg your pardon?

“Some guys were probably surprised,” Woodall continued.

More than some, I’m sure.

“Most guys settled down, and they started playing our basketball, just going out and playing how we do in practice. Guys started to get open looks and started getting open shots.”

In fairness, Dixon’s steadfast approach, on countless occasions, has served him well. But to hear those words spoken after No. 23 Pitt doggedly dismantled Big East runt-of-the-litter South Florida, 64-44, before 12,320 at the Petersen Events Center was to bear witness to the sort of plot twist the Oakland Zoo might only see during a Netflix night in Sutherland Hall.

But hey, as long as we’re on the subject of movies–and as long as the school’s paying for it–there’s an interesting one on basic cable: “Freaky Friday.”

You know, the one with a young Jodie Foster?

Uh-huh. Lindsay Lohan too. Yep, another remake.

(Sorry, I hate dating myself when I do these things. I feel old enough already.)

Don’t remember? Allow me…

Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis (or, if you prefer, Foster and Barbara Harris), family members with differing personalities and differing problems, switch bodies on Friday the 13th. Textbook Disney-esque hilarity ensues.

Compared to their last effort at The Pete, there was nothing Mickey Mouse about this one. But you had better believe, on this Thursday the 28th, there’s been some “Freaky Friday” action taking place not just on Pitt’s sideline, but in its frontcourt.

I’m no tactician. Having said that, I believe I’ve seen enough of Pitt’s offense under Dixon to know two things.

Number one: Schematically, it insists upon being tactful, not to mention deliberate and unselfish. Number two: Dixon adheres to it, for better or worse.

“They were sets, but it was more of a freelance-type thing, getting the ball moved from one side to another. That was the emphasis. I just wanted them to play basketball,” he said of the supposed switcheroo. “I don’t know they felt confident in that initially, but they did see the results, and then I think they felt better about it.”

If you insist, Coach. Or should I say…Jamie?

Anyway, now that we’ve cleared that up, perhaps someone can explain why Dante Taylor and fellow forward Talib Zanna didn’t look like themselves, either?

For all the heat Taylor has taken in the past for not providing the firepower expected of a high school All-American, he’s actually one of the most accurate shooters in program history. In the meantime, he has fine-tuned himself defensively, trying to make himself as otherwise serviceable along the baseline as possible.

Nevertheless, with Pitt’s starting five scuffling against USF’s man-to-man, Taylor totaled 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and ten boards, his third career double-double, continuing his inspirational play off the bench. Meanwhile, having added another layer to his game, he made his only two free throws, and has now shot 70% at the line for the season and 77.4% in Big East play–hence, another conference rival that couldn’t rival Pitt’s depth.

“What I’ve been impressed with is his practices. He’s been playing really well in practice, getting in at both spots, the four and the five, and he’s been such a great player and teammate for us. His unselfishness is something that is recognized by his teammates. He’s been a big part of a lot of wins here in a lot of different ways that may not show up in the score book, but I thought he was terrific today,” Dixon said of Taylor, who helped Pitt hold a familiar 42-25 rebounding edge. “Between Dante and Steve [Adams], we had 16 rebounds out of those two, so that’s a pretty good number.”

“It feels really good. I’ve been working hard these last few weeks in practice, so I just tried to carry it over to these last few games,” Taylor agreed. “Especially to get that one today with this being the second-to-last home game, I just tried to come out and play hard.”

It was the kind of gusto and, more importantly, execution I’m sure Dixon would like to see more from Zanna as well. Unless I’m grossly misreading mechanics, body language, and basic stats, an important piece of that offensive puzzle has gone missing.

At the beginning of the season, Zanna picked up where he left off in the CBI. Clearly the potential existed for the 6’9″ Nigerian to become the latest Panther to earn Big East Most Improved Player honors. Since a New Year’s Eve loss to Cincinnati, he has scored in double figures just twice.

On Wednesday he missed favorable looks down low, and with them, chances for Pitt to perhaps put away the Bulls earlier than they did. To his credit, Zanna, who had managed no more than four points in six of his previous seven outings, still made himself a presence, finishing with a more commendable seven points and seven rebounds.

Postseason opponents, come who may, may not be so forgiving.

Fortunately, Zanna, the team’s second-best rebounder, is averaging a healthy 5.2 per Big East game. He owned the glass in an upset of Syracuse, and those seven Wednesday were the most for him since grabbing nine when Pitt avenged that loss to UC.

So the defensive specialist becomes a scoring machine, and the scoring machine…you get the idea.

Woodall, for what it’s worth, doesn’t mind the role reversal.

“As Dixon says, we’ve got ten guys who can step up. [They're] ten guys who can rotate and make up for other guys who might lack the scoring on certain nights,” he said.

Did Dixon have a “Freaky Friday” moment? Or did he merely prove he’s learned a lesson, much like his team continues to prove it’s learned from a 2011-12 season that left us all freaking out?

Will Taylor and Zanna switch back to normal, as we know it, before season’s end? Or has the freshman-through-junior-year version of Taylor disappeared, like the fading memories of all those offensive shortcomings?

In contrast, can the Zanna of yesteryear reappear…preferably some time before March 12?

Yet another urban legend for the urban campus to ponder as it gears up for what could be one freaky NCAA Tournament.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

Check out the Panther Hollow blog at 937thefan.com for more Pitt content.

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