Basketball Preview: Zanna, Patterson must step up to lead Panthers

By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt enters the 2013-2014 season without three of its top five scorers and rebounders from a season ago. In total, for a team that averaged 69 points and 35 rebounds per game last year, the losses of Travon Woodall, Steven Adams, J.J. Moore, Dante Taylor and Trey Zeigler account for roughly half of Pitt’s production in each category.

So who replaces that production? For Pitt to attain as much success as it did a year ago, veteran leadership and new faces must elevate their games.

Pitt carries just two seniors into this season: small forward Lamar Patterson and center Talib Zanna. Patterson was the only player besides Woodall to average double-digit point totals last season at 10 per game, while Zanna averaged 9.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

So far, Zanna sees working overtime with younger players as one of his duties as a leader.

“Me and Lamar [Patterson] came in at the same time,” Zanna said. “I’m the only veteran in the frontcourt, so we’re doing some extra stuff every time after practice.”

Zanna, himself, needs to lead with his play. Zanna posted big numbers in nonconference play last season, but essentially disappeared during Big East games.

Out of necessity, Head coach Jamie Dixon moved Zanna to the center position, where he will open the season as a starter.

“I like playing the center. It probably can create a mismatch sometimes,” Zanna said. “Whatever the coach wants me to play, I’m ready to play.”

Since Zanna moved to the five, the power forward spot cleared open and was filled by freshman Mike Young. Dixon started two freshmen last season in James Robinson and Adams and now needs to immediately play the prize of his 2013 recruiting class.

In practices and exhibitions so far, Young has already impressed Zanna.

“Mike is really skilled and big, strong inside,” Zanna said. “He’s a good rebounder, can finish strong.”

Young says he’s been learning from Zanna since his arrival at Pitt.

“Since my first day here, every day I learn from him,” Young said. “Just battling with him gets me better, he’s a great guy on and off the court. I look up to him as a role model and as a leader on this team.”

Next to Young, Jamel Artis and Josh Newkirk are other freshmen whose services will be required early and often. Artis can play both forward positions and brings the versatility Pitt needs to adjust to ACC play.

Artis has already lost more than 15 pounds, which has helped improve the different aspects he brings to the court.

“When you’re quicker and you’ve lost weight, you jump higher, move faster,” Artis said. “It’s a lot of help.”

At Pitt’s Media Day in late September, Dixon went as far as to compare Artis’ multiple assets to those of Sam Young and Nasir Robinson.

“I think he’s worked hard, I think he’s worked harder than he’s ever done,” Dixon said. “Really skilled, gives us that kind of undersized four that we’ve had success with. He can play the three, too.”

In the backcourt, Newkirk slots right in to back up Robinson. Dixon said Newkirk may be the fastest player Pitt’s ever had, while Robinson has focused on serving a role for Newkirk that is similar to what Woodall provided him last year.

“With Tray [Woodall], he was a senior last year and he kind of showed me the ropes,” Robinson said. “I guess now, with me being older than Josh, it’s kind of my role to try to teach him how Tray taught me last year. As a unit, we’re going to be pretty good together.”

While Pitt is yet to play a regular season game, Robinson’s been impressed with what Young, Artis and Newkirk have already brought to the table.

“Each of them is going to contribute big time,” Robinson said. “It’s hard to say one is going to stand out more than the others because three of them are going to be pretty good for us.”