PITTSBURGH – Pitt’s chances of ending its NCAA tournament disappointments will depend largely on the long arms and quick feet of center Talib Zanna.
It’s a position the senior from Kaduna, Nigeria is finally comfortable with after years of struggling to play with confidence or consistency.
Zanna was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference tournament first team after averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds during the Panthers’ three-game run to the semifinals.
It was the kind of head-turning performance that will certainly make eighth-seeded Colorado (23-11) take notice when they face the ninth-seeded Panthers (25-9) in the second round Thursday in Orlando, Fla.
“He’s a leader, he’s a senior, and when you see him going, it just gets the ball rolling,” Pitt senior forward Lamar Patterson said. “Everything was clicking.”
All part of the plan for Pitt, which was basically a .500 team after losing emotional sparkplug Durand Johnson for the season with a knee injury in mid-January. Pitt’s postseason prospects appeared to be in jeopardy heading into the ACC tournament only to see them solidified by Zanna’s dynamic play.
Zanna set the tone for his team Thursday when he had 17 points and nine rebounds against Wake Forest in the Panthers’ opening game.
After rolling the Demon Deacons, the fifth-seeded Panthers upset the fourth-seeded North Carolina on the back of an inspired performance by Zanna.
He dominated North Carolina’s talented frontcourt featuring James Michael McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, with 19 points and 21 rebounds in 34 minutes before fouling out.
Zanna said “we made our statement” as the Panthers beat a ranked team for the first time this season.
Even in defeat, Zanna was one of the best players on the court. He scored 12 points in the first half of the semifinals against Virginia but finished with 15 as the Cavaliers found ways to neutralize him with added pressure via double teams. Despite falling short of the ACC title game, Zanna thinks Pitt accomplished something in Greensboro.
“We needed a couple wins to have a better seed for the NCAA tournament,” Zanna said. “We are the ninth seed right now and we cannot worry about it.”
From coach Jamie Dixon’s perspective, Zanna’s play had a lot to do with health after dealing with a twisted ankle for the latter part of the season. Zanna certainly looked healthy while playing like one of the better big men in the country.
“We have been playing our best basketball this year at this point,” Dixon said. “Talib seems healthy and Lamar is doing well.”
Zanna’s attitude remains unchanged heading into the tournament. If the Panthers win Thursday, they will likely face No. 1 overall seed Florida on Saturday.
For Pitt to have a shot at winning more than one game in this year’s tournament – something the Panthers haven’t done since 2009 – Zanna will not only have to continue to elevate his game but set the bar for the rest of his team.
“I think the seed doesn’t matter because a couple years back, a lot of (Pitt) teams had a No. 1 seed and in the first round they went down,” Zanna said. “It’s who has the heart to come out and dominate and play like they want it so bad, so that’s the people who (are) going to win the tournament.”