PITTSBURGH – Trey Zeigler thought he had it all figured out. On paper, it looked so obvious.
When the former Central Michigan guard transferred to Pitt over the summer and was granted a waiver by the NCAA that allowed him to play for the Panthers right away, Zeigler just assumed he’d be inserted right into the starting lineup alongside point guard Tray Woodall.
“That’s how I had it in my head,” Zeigler said.
Jamie Dixon’s head, however, had other plans.
A couple days before the team’s first exhibition game, Dixon sat Zeigler down and told him freshman James Robinson would start at the point and Woodall would be the shooting guard, leaving the player who averaged 16 points a game in two years at Central Michigan somewhat stunned.
Asked if his initial reaction was something along the lines of “for real?”, Zeigler laughed.
“Once I figured out I was going to be coming off the bench, it was just growing up,” he said. “I had to grow up and deal with the new role and that’s just part of life.”
The adjustment period proved rockier than expected.
Though Zeigler was productive when given playing time early in the season, things changed when the 21-year-old was charged with two misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence in late November. Dixon suspended Zeigler two games. It gave Zeigler time to re-evaluate his outlook.
Did he wonder if he’d made a mistake by coming “home” to Pittsburgh – where his father, Ernie, served as an assistant coach under Ben Howland from 2001-03 – instead of accepting transfer offers from Duke and UCLA? Did he think maybe he should have sat out a year to get acclimated instead of trying to immerse himself in an entirely new system in a few short months?
“All kinds of thoughts went through my head when I was going through it,” Zeigler said. “The biggest thing was having my family here, that really helped. Having my mom and dad here, talking me through it. If I was here by myself, it might have been even worse.”
Ernie and Seantelle Zeigler moved to Pittsburgh to be with the oldest of their two children when Central Michigan fired Ernie as head coach following six uneven seasons. Though he’s out of coaching for the moment, Ernie is still getting his fix by breaking down tape with Trey into the wee hours of the morning.
Lately, dad’s been a little busier than usual thanks to a decided uptick in play – and in playing time – for his son.
Zeigler is averaging 9 points over his last three games for Pitt (16-4, 4-3 Big East), which hosts DePaul (10-8, 1-4) today. It helps that he’s playing about 22 minutes a game since Dixon made him the first guard off the bench before a loss to Marquette two weeks ago.
“I’m playing a lot more, so I feel more comfortable on the court and doing what coach wants me to do, rebounding and defense,” he said. “I’m just trying to bring positive energy out there.”
The most direct route to getting into the lineup when playing for Dixon is crashing the boards, a point of emphasis since the beginning of the season.
The 6-foot-5 Zeigler is unlike most shooting guards in that he’s not big on chucking 3-pointers – he’s taken just three all year – and instead relies on slashing to the rim or pulling up for a midrange jumper. That means he’s around the basket quite a bit, making him an effective rebounder. Nearly half (14) of his 34 boards have come off the offensive glass, and he’s shown a knack for tipping a ball to a teammate for an easy putback.
“It’s just about reading the ball, reading it coming off the rim,” he said. “I’m not as big as other guys, but I can sneak in there and try and get one or two a game.”
Zeigler’s increased role has coincided with a three-game winning streak that has Pitt in the thick of a muddled middle in the Big East. A win Saturday would clear the way for the most pivotal week of the season. Pitt plays at No. 5 Louisville Monday and hosts No. 3 Syracuse next weekend.
At some point, Zeigler knows the Panthers will have to knock off a team they’re not supposed to if they want to bolster their NCAA tournament credentials.
“We know we’re good enough to beat anybody, but we need to do it,” he said. “We’ve got some opportunities coming up, hopefully we take advantage of it.”
It’s something Zeigler believes he’s done following a rough start. While Dixon said there are plans to put Cameron Wright – who Zeigler replaced as the top player off the bench – back into the mix, the coach also is well aware that Zeigler needs to be on the floor.
“I think he’s making better decisions with the basketball,” Dixon said. “He’s now been with us for half a year, and I think that’s only natural. It’s something that we expected and hoped for, and we’re seeing it. So it’s not surprising.”