In an ACC battle between former Big East foes, Pittsburgh and Syracuse delivered a low-scoring thrill ride, with the Orange ultimately remaining undefeated after a 59-54 victory.
We've known for a while now that Syracuse is the team to beat in the ACC this year, but there had been doubts over whether Pittsburgh was capable of helping make this a full-fledged takeover by newcomers.
Prior to Saturday, the Panthers had played just one game against an RPI Top 50 opponent, and they lost to Cincinnati in one of the most memorably ugly games of the season. Despite suffering just that one loss before this weekend, it wasn't until this past Monday that they finally made their debut in the AP Top 25.
Never mind the fact that they were beating the pants off of their opponents, the Panthers were given a bad rap for playing a soft schedule—their nonconference strength of schedule ranked 208th in the nation.
After pushing the No. 2 team in the country to the brink on its home court, though, it's probably safe to accept Pittsburgh as the second-best team in the ACC.
Ken Pomeroy has both Syracuse and Pittsburgh rated among the top seven teams in the country. Virginia is the highest-rated "original" member of the ACC, checking in somewhat surprisingly at No. 15 despite already suffering five losses.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh are two of just seven teams who rank in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency. Who are the others, you ask? They are Arizona, Kansas, Michigan State, Villanova and Wichita State. It's none too surprising to see Syracuse among that list of elite teams, but Pittsburgh might come as a surprise to those who haven't been watching.
"They have a really good basketball team. I think they're as good as anybody," Jim Boeheim said about the Panthers following his team's narrow victory, via USA Today's Jeff DiVeronica.
The key for both teams has been impeccable defense.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone has been driving opposing coaching bonkers, as usual. The last time an opponent scored more than 65 points in a game against Syracuse, we were still prepping our Thanksgiving turkeys. After Pittsburgh's 54-point effort on Saturday, ACC opponents are now averaging 50.8 points per game against Boeheim's team.
The Orange aren't exactly forcing terrible shots, either, as opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of 48.9 percent against them. Their defense has just been impressively aggressive.
For a fifth consecutive season, Syracuse is in the top five in the country in blocked shot percentage (subscription required)—rejecting 18 percent of the opponent's two-point field-goal attempts. The Orange are also second only to VCU in steal percentage, which has carried them to third in the nation in percentage of opponent's possessions that result in a turnover (subscription required).
Frustrated by the inability to do anything else (and playing from behind more often than not), Syracuse's opponents have had 45.0 percent of their field-goal attempts come from behind the three-point arc. Not only is that the highest percentage in the country (subscription required), but it's exactly twice as high as the lowest percentage belonging to New Mexico State—which makes zero sense, since the Aggies have 7'5" Sim Bhullar to block two-point shots, but that's neither here nor there.
Compared to Syracuse, just about every other defense comes out looking like chopped liver, but Pittsburgh isn't too shabby, either.
The Panthers don't force a ton of turnovers—at 19.3 percent, they're marginally better than the national average—but they are about as fundamentally sound on both ends of the court as any team that you'll find. Excluding Saturday's game against Syracuse, Pittsburgh has held its opponents to 43.0 percent shooting inside the arc and 32.4 percent outside of it—both of which are considerably stingier than the national average.
In addition to above-average face-up defense, Pittsburgh limits the number of shots that its opponent takes by dominating both the offensive and defensive boards. The Panthers are 13th in the nation in offensive rebounding, grabbing 39.3 percent of their own misses. They are also 28th in defensive rebounding, limiting their opponents to a 27.3 percent offensive rebounding clip.
Even though the shooting and the field-goal percentage defense weren't there much on Saturday, Pittsburgh used this advantage to stay in the game against Syracuse. Pittsburgh had 16 offensive rebounds compared to just four for Syracuse.
The team defense for these ACC newcomers is great, but the individual team leaders might be even greater.
Pomeroy had both Pittsburgh's Lamar Patterson and Syracuse's C.J. Fair ranked in the top five of his player of the year watch (subscription required) this past Thursday. Along with those absolute studs, Pittsburgh's Talib Zanna is averaging 15.6 points and 10.0 rebounds in ACC play, and Tyler Ennis is making a serious case to become the USBWA National Freshman of the Year.
Duke's Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood get a lot of love nationally, but Pittsburgh and Syracuse might have the best one-two punches in the country.
As a result, they are more than prepared to remain the top two teams in the conference for the rest of the season.
The changing of the guard has begun. Syracuse already has a win over North Carolina, while Pittsburgh has scored victories over North Carolina State, Maryland and Wake Forest. With Duke traveling to Pittsburgh on Jan. 27 and to Syracuse on Feb. 1, we might be just two weeks away from the former members of the Big East delivering a knockout blow to the ACC as we once knew it.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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