BOULDER – Ask Tad Boyle which Pac-12 team Pittsburgh reminds him of and there is no dallying, no dillying. No time needed to collect his thoughts. Catch and shoot.
“Arizona” is Boyle’s immediate answer.
If that doesn’t get your (and his team’s) attention you didn’t pay enough of that to the 2013-14 college basketball season. Arizona, for those needing a refresher, went 3-0 against Boyle’s Colorado Buffaloes, winning 69-57 in Tucson, 88-61 in Boulder and eliminating the Buffs 63-43 from last week’s Pac-12 Tournament.
Arizona is one of four No. 1 seeds in this week’s NCAA Tournament, which finds CU – an eight seed – and Pitt – a ninth seed – matched Thursday morning (11:40 a.m. MDT, TBS) in Orlando, Fla. The Buffs’ traveling party left by charter for the East Coast on Tuesday afternoon.
The Panthers, moving from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, remind Boyle of the Wildcats mostly because of a philosophy predicated on defense and rebounding – which should sound familiar to anyone who has listened to Boyle expound on his hoops philosophy. Count on those two words – the ‘D’ and ‘R’ words – being uttered no later than 5 seconds into Boyle’s mission statement.
Boyle admires Arizona coach Sean Miller, and although Boyle might not have the kind of in-conference relationship with Pitt coach Jamie Dixon than he does with Miller, he also admires Dixon for the resume he’s put together and the tenacity of the Panthers’ overall game – but especially in the two areas Boyle emphasizes.
Pitt, said Boyle, “takes lot of pride in their defense and they rebound the heck out of the ball . . . that’s what Arizona does.”
They have “mutual friends” in the profession and Boyle knows Dixon was an assistant to former Pitt coach Ben Howland at Northern Arizona University, then was hired by Howland in 1999 as the Panthers’ associate head coach/recruiting coordinator. Boyle might not know that Dixon was featured in a number of commercials as a kid – Rice Krispies, Mattel toys – and into his early 20’s hawking Volvos and Bud Light.
IF THERE'S ANOTHER D-I men’s coach who’s also a member of the Screen Actors Guild, find him for me.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him, you watch what his teams have done, look at his record in 11 seasons at Pitt and it’s pretty impressive when you look at the leagues he’s competed in – the Big East and now the ACC – to have the record he has is pretty amazing,” Boyle said. “He’s a heck of a coach.”
And Dixon, whose 12-year record at Pitt is 287-95 (25-9, 11-7 ACC), has a heck of a low-post player in fifth-year senior Talib Zanna, a 6-9, 230-pound Nigerian who devastated No. 15 North Carolina in Pitt’s 80-75 quarterfinal win in last week’s ACC Tournament.
Zanna wrecked the Tar Heels with 19 points and 21 rebounds – the board total tying for third most in ACC Tournament history. When Boyle watched that tape on Monday morning, he had this to say about Zanna: “Their big guy is a beast” – which probably was pretty close to summing up Carolina coach Roy Williams’ post-game feelings.
Zanna’s 21-board total included 10 offensive rebounds, just one fewer than the North Carolina team. Five of the OBs were turned into baskets, and at one point in the second half he scored six consecutive Pitt points on put-backs for a 45-31 lead. “The ball kept coming to me," Zanna told reporters afterwards. “But I'm not going to say I was lucky. I worked for it. I love crashing the glass.”
Cooling that love obviously becomes a priority for the Buffs. But how? The best guess here is a matchup with Wesley Gordon, who gives away nothing in size (6-9, 225) and athleticism but as a redshirt freshman lacks Zanna’s experience. Gordon’s inside defense and rebounding will be among the top two or three keys to CU’s early NCAA success.
Zanna’s story is intriguing. Born in Kaduna, Nigeria, he was one five children whose father (Zanna Awami) was a successful businessman. Talib’s father died not long after he committed to Pitt, and Talib – a devout Muslim – keeps his dad’s picture in his locker, touches it and says a prayer for him before every game.
A soccer player as a kid, Talib was discovered at a big man camp in Lagos run by his mentor and former Georgetown player Godwin Owinje. Training in Nigeria before coming to this country, his workout regimen featured running mountains to help his speed, vertical leap and conditioning. Now he averages a team-high 8.3 rebounds a game.
CU’s inside play – specifically the work of 6-10 sophomore Josh Scott – had been a consistent strength until last week’s Pac-12 Tournament. Scott takes a 14.1 scoring average and 8.5 rebounding average – both team bests – to Orlando, but he concedes he wasn’t up to par in the semifinal game in Vegas.
Averaging 12 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins against USC and Cal, Arizona limited him to four points (on 2-of-9 shooting) and two rebounds. He encountered quick double teams from the Wildcats almost as soon as he touched the ball.
“For me personally I know I need to work on those double teams,” he said, adding that all of his teammates will go to Orlando with personal improvement in mind. “I’m a big part of the team but I also know that I’m not the biggest . . . I obviously didn’t play well and we made it to the semifinals of the Pac-12. So we obviously have some good players. I wouldn’t say I’m a big part, but it certainly would help if I could play better than I did last week.”
IN THIS TOURNAMENT, BOYLE wants Scott to catch the ball “deeper on the block,” which will help in spacing and give Scott more room to work. There’s still the matter of the double-teams and Scott making good decisions passing out of them. But as Boyle noted, “In the game of basketball if there’s two guys guarding one of yours, somebody’s open – we’ve got to find that guy and get the ball moved. The fact that they double the post at times can be a good thing for us if we handle it the right way.”
Most of these Buffs were in Austin, Texas, last March and experienced the “one-and-done” emptiness that accompanied the 57-49 loss to Illinois. The previous season, CU won its first NCAA game against UNLV (68-64) before being eliminated by Baylor (80-63).
From the early out in Austin, said Scott, the Buffs learned “how much it stinks to lose in the first round. You don’t want that feeling . . . this is a different team, but you carry that with you and you don’t want it with you for the whole summer. We’re trying to get farther than we did last year.”
Boyle, of course, echoed that. Asked what his team took away from its “get-there-and-go-home” experience, he said, “That it can be over quick . . . a lot of things happen in a short period of time, then – boom – you get to the game and you lose and you’re packing your bags and going home.
“Our guys don’t want to do that. Nobody wants to do that, but guess what? What is it, 32 teams, are going to do that Thursday and Friday . . . we don’t that to happen and nobody else does either. That’s what makes this tournament so good in terms of energy and the sense of urgency that everybody plays with.”
If the Buffs understand that and put it to practice on Thursday, they can account very well for themselves. Oh, other factors will come into play – such as making shots and contending with guys like Talib Zanna. But every team in the NCAA field has a to-do list and is hopeful of getting most of the do’s done.
It’s what makes it a mad month – and maybe the best one in sports.