Trey Zeigler had options – lots of them – when he decided to leave Central Michigan in the spring after his father Ernie was let go as head coach last spring.
UCLA called. Duke did too. Only one place felt like home, however, to the talented guard who averaged 15.6 points as a sophomore last season: Pittsburgh.
Maybe because in a way, it was.
Zeigler spent part of his childhood in Pittsburgh while his dad served as an assistant under coach Jamie Dixon a decade ago. Standing in the airport after his official visit, Zeigler called Dixon and told him his mind was made up.
“I felt like I could trust him,” Zeigler said.
Dixon responded by petitioning the NCAA to waive the usual one-year waiting period for transfers so Zeigler could play right away. The NCAA gave its approval over the summer, and Zeigler thrust himself right into the thick of things as the latest in a line of talented Pitt shooting guards that includes Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker.
“That’s something he stressed when he was recruiting me,” Zeigler said. “He told me a lot of his offense was run through the two guard and I couldn’t say no to that. When you can make plays and have the ball in your hands, that’s right where I want to do.”
It’s something the Panthers failed to do a year ago after point guard Tray Woodall went down with a lingering abdominal injury that sidelined him nine games and limited him in several others. With their only real ballhandler sidelined, Pitt floundered to its worst season under Dixon. The Panthers went 22-17 and missed the NCAA tournament, though they did rally to win the College Basketball Invitational.
It was a nice moment at the end of a frustrating winter, but don’t expect to see a banner in the Peterson Events Center, not after Pitt let teams like Wagner and Big East also-rans Rutgers and South Florida push the Panthers around on their own floor.
“It was embarrassing basically, losing at home as much as we did and losing to teams that we shouldn’t have lost to,” forward Lamar Patterson said. “We know every game we go into this season, we’re not going to want to have the same feeling. It’s definitely pushing us to be better.”
Dixon remains typically tight-lipped about his team’s potential, though the addition of Zeigler and freshman point guard James Robinson should take some of the pressure off Woodall to do all the playmaking in an offense that relies heavily on ball movement.
Woodall, who says he wasn’t fully recovered from the abdominal injury until August, intends to lead the nation in assists but no longer feels the burden to do everything.
“We’ve got a bunch of creators on this team now,” he said. “We don’t have a bunch of guys just waiting for somebody to create for them.”
It would be a marked departure from last season, when the Panthers shot a miserable 42 percent. Pitt struggled to score, finishing with less than 50 points in losses to Rutgers, West Virginia and South Florida.
A healthier Patterson, an improved J.J. Moore and the versatile Zeigler should help those numbers tick up, though Dixon remains more focused at what happens on the other end of the floor. For all of Pitt’s offensive woes a year ago, the bigger issues were on defense.
The snarl that made the Panthers one of the toughest teams in one of the nation’s toughest leagues disappeared for long stretches when Pitt would look lifeless. Big East opponents shot 45 percent against the Panthers, finding sprawling gaps that previously never existed.
“We’ve got to be the best defensive team in the conference,” Dixon said. “That’s what we’ve done when we’ve won conference championships.”
Something Pitt would love to do before leaving for the ACC next summer. Woodall, who was on a team that won the Big East as a freshman, talks openly about going out on top.
Whether it happens depends largely on the development of freshman center Steven Adams. The 7-footer from New Zealand is the youngest of 18 children and counts a two-time Olympic gold medal winning shotputter among his siblings in half-sister Valerie Kansanita Vili-Adams.
Like just about every young boy from his country, Adams took a stab at rugby first. His lean frame didn’t quite take to the abuse.
“I got smashed so I didn’t play anymore,” Adams said with a grin.
Besides, he’d rather be the one doing the smashing. The brawny Adams shrugs his shoulders when asked about his strengths, saying only he likes to “rebound and run.”
There’s more to him than that, however. Zeigler jokes every foray to the basket when he and Adams are on separate teams during a scrimmage ends with a foul or Adams walloping the ball into the stands. The Panthers could use that kind of tenacity in the middle, though Dixon refuses to go overboard on praising Adams, who is considered a surefire NBA prospect.
“I think he’s got some very good tools,” Dixon said. “He works. He really wants to be a player.”