5 Keys to Victory for No. 22 Pittsburgh at No. 2 Syracuse Saturday
The best thing that can happen to No. 22 Pittsburgh (4-0, 16-1) on Saturday afternoon is further vindication of its spot in the AP poll, which it earned with wins over N.C. State, Maryland and Wake Forest during its ACC honeymoon.
The worst that can happen is that no one will be able to say it "hasn't played anybody" anymore.
No. 2 Syracuse (4-0, 17-0) hosts the Panthers at 4 p.m. ET for the first time since knocking them out of their final conference tournament as Big East rivals. The Orange are one of three remaining unbeaten teams in the country, and one of two from "power" conferences, but the Panthers, if history is any barometer, are the biggest threat to their perfection thus far.
That disappointing postseason affair notwithstanding, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon is 10-4 against the 'Cuse since relieving Ben Howland, including five victories in six trips to the Carrier Dome. They averaged 74.4 points in those five outings, and they bring the third-best team offense in the ACC to upstate New York, where the home team ranks third in the conference defensively (58.4 points per game).
Thanks to the diligence of B/R featured columnists Gene Siudut and Justin Neuman, you can take a gander at this longtime rivalry through Orange-tinted glasses, but now it's time for the Panther point of view.
Here are five keys to Pitt passing its toughest test since joining the ACC.
1. Zero in on the 2-3
There are multiple sides to Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. There's a heroic side: He's the second-winningest coach in Division I history, not to mention a cancer survivor. There's a snarky side: CBS Sports reporter Jeff Goodman can attest to that.
Then, as depicted in the picture, there's the flustered side, and that one seems to appear frequently when these teams meet. I remember waiting for Boeheim to answer a question posed by Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after last year's home-court win by the Panthers about why Pitt has enjoyed so much success against the Orange. All he could do was shrug.
Boeheim, like Dixon, has been very set in his ways. Dixon takes more heat for his consistency of approach because although he, too, has won, Boeheim has won more when it matters. Boeheim won a national championship in 2003 and he's coming off his first Final Four appearance since.
Yet for some reason, a coach criticized for "never adjusting," who happens to lead a team that hasn't always had success against zone defenses, doesn't have much trouble figuring out Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 scheme.
That's because he has the right idea (and Siudut touched on it briefly this week): His players can't simply shoot around it; they have to attack it. In both meetings last season more than half of the Panthers' offense came from their frontcourt. Pitt doesn't have Steven Adams anymore, but it still has the power to punch Syracuse's defense in its proverbial gut.
Forward Lamar Patterson is among the top scorers in the conference with his 17.6 points per contest. Center and fellow senior Talib Zanna isn't far behind, averaging 16.5 per game in ACC play, and the Nigerian ranks fourth in the conference with 8.1 rebounds per game overall.
Furthermore, first-year starting forward Michael Young and first-year reserve forward Jamel Artis once played high school ball top Syracuse newcomer Tyler Ennis. Naturally, they'll be eager to upstage the former St. Benedict's Prep (N.J.) star on his own floor.
2. Play Heady, Lamar
In case you missed my last remark, that Patterson guy is pretty good. In fact, he was good enough to become the first two-time conference player of the week honoree at Pitt since Sam Young during the 2008-09 season.
The improvement in his offensive game between his redshirt junior and senior seasons has been palpable. At Georgia Tech on Tuesday night he struggled, but he still managed 12 points, including one of Pitt's only two three-pointers, along with seven boards and seven helpers. If we've already seen Patterson at his worst, I'll take that over many individuals' best.
Early in ACC play he's averaged an even 20 points per game, sitting just behind Duke's Rodney Hood in that category entering Saturday, and he's shot a healthy 51.7 percent in those four outings. This season he's reached double figures in all but one game.
Last season's meetings with the Orange were a prime example of how feast-or-famine Patterson was. In the lone regular season contest at The Pete, Patterson finished with seven points and went just 3-of-7 from the field. In the Big East Tournament, he scratched out a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds).
Leading Syracuse will be C.J. Fair, one of the most versatile senior forwards in the conference, if not the country—a player who, as he demonstrated against the Panthers last year, can hurt you any number of ways. He pumped in a game-high 20 in a losing effort on Feb. 2, 2013, then registered 13 chiefly on 3-of-5 shooting behind the arc on March 14.
The law of averages says Fair and the Orange are due for a commendable offensive effort, so for Pitt to keep pace, it needs the "new" Lamar Patterson to keep showing up.
3. The "Courier" Dome
Regardless of where you think these teams really belong in the rankings, it's obvious the two best teams in the ACC will be on display. One of the things that has made them that successful is their characteristically unselfish style of play, which has carried over from their Big East exploits.
Pitt leads the conference and ranks fourth nationally with a 1.71 assist-to-turnover ratio entering Saturday. This is thanks largely to sophomore point guard James Robinson, who virtually shares the national lead with a 5.31 mark. The Panthers have averaged a top-ranked 17 assists per game against conference foes.
Ennis, Robinson's counterpart, isn't far behind with a 4.17 clip coming into the Dome this weekend. An erstwhile ACC Rookie of the Week honoree, the pure freshman leads the league with 6.5 helpers per game in ACC play. Ennis is currently sitting third in the ACC at 5.65 per game overall.
They may be matched up against each other for much of this contest, and it should be a rigorous test for two young men who have already proven they can handle the ball with prodigious maturity. The bottom line is, the Panthers, when they simply play their game, will share the sugar, think on their feet and keep defenders guessing one possession after another, which is tough to adjust to for any opponent.
4. "Guarded" Optimism
Once again, both of these teams have the tools for strong perimeter play. For Pitt, which recently saw sophomore Durand Johnson, one of its most capable long-range shooters, go down with a season-ending ACL injury, it's especially important.
Once again, this is where Robinson comes in.
Not only has he already handled the task of representing his country—and done a fine job of it at the FIBA World Championships—he has also handled the equally intimidating responsibility of shadowing some of the country's top guards day by day, night by night. Last year, that was Michael Carter-Williams, who is now with the Philadelphia 76ers. This year, it's Ennis.
In that Feb. 2, 2013 meeting, Robinson held Carter-Williams to 3-of-12 from the field. Then Robinson himself, in postseason defeat, put up 10 points along with four rebounds, four assists and four steals while facing the future pro.
Robinson is coming off a career-high 16-point outburst at Georgia Tech in which he also had five helpers. His offensive game is not flashy; he's averaging about half of that per game this season. But he can stick the three, particularly from the corner, and he's a career 87.5 percent foul shooter. If he merely plays up to par, the Orange will have their work cut out for them.
But what about that other guard?
You probably won't get redshirt junior Cam Wright (pictured) to admit he's a different player this season. Trust me, I tried after he took Duquesne to school in the City Game. But he has matriculated from the bench to Dixon's starting lineup, and he has become an excellent two-way spark plug in the process.
The 6'4", 205-pound Cleveland native is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he's reached double figures in eight of his last 13 outings, including Tuesday's win at McCamish Pavilion, where he shot 6-of-10. That only happened twice all of his sophomore year, in which he averaged 4.3 per game as a backup.
Syracuse can extend its 2-3 zone if it wants to and force its opponents to take low-percentage shots. For all of Robinson's daring-do, it should also be noted that Wright, though he's cooled off a bit in ACC play, has been able to score from various ranges.
Plus, Wright has improved defensively, ranking third in the ACC with 2.12 steals per game. The top two are the duo Robinson and Wright will be watching: Ennis (2.76) and sophomore sensation Trevor Cooney (2.35), who is also a dangerous outside shooter. Pitt needs to play typically tough and, as previously discussed, move the ball with its usual brand of responsibility to have a chance.
5. Hey, You Look Familiar...
Whether you're in the Carrier Dome or on the couch watching ESPN at this evening, you, the fans, like the players, know exactly what you're walking into. Pitt and Syracuse have adhered to what made them successful in the Big East, and they've found a way to make it work so far in the ACC.
One thing that shouldn't surprise you is if much of the focus is on the aforementioned high school reunion of Young (pictured), Artis and Ennis that was duly noted by Mike Waters of The Post-Standard.
To wit, Young, a strong rebounder, and Artis need to help Zanna inside against Robinson's old DeMatha Catholic teammate, Jerami Grant. The latter was ruthless against the Tar Heels last weekend, and he's averaging 12.5 points per game as a sophomore.
The Panthers are going to try to play a physically tough game. The Orange are going to try to play a mentally tough game. Sometimes, when you match up teams that aren't surprised by anything each other does, it leads to sloppiness as one scrambles to outwit the other on the fly, and it hinders offense.
However, whether this game ends up in the fifties or in the hundreds, expect a valiant effort from both sides, as these rivals often match each other blow for blow. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds ingenuity. Just as Boeheim has spent years playing his 2-3 zone, Dixon has had that much time to teach his teams, year after year, how to adapt to it.
Syracuse has already received the nationwide respect it deserves, but if Dixon continues his mastery over Boeheim, the Panthers will surely collect their due credit.
Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com, TheACC.com, Syracuse University Athletics, and University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations.