Well, tomorrow we’ll get to see the kind of resilience this Syracuse University team truly has. The Orange head to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers in the team’s first game since word came down that there would be a self-imposed ban from any postseason competition this year, and now all we can do is sit back and watch how the home stretch of the 2015-2015 basketball season plays out.
It’s a game that has me a little nervous for a variety of reasons, none more than the possibility that the Orange could come out flat, for the obvious reasons. This is an unfair punishment for the players on this year’s team, who had nothing to do with any of the actions that led to these University imposed sanctions, but are being saddled with the fallout nonetheless.
The other primary reason I’m a little bit nervous about tomorrow’s game is the simple fact that it’s a game at Pittsburgh, where Syracuse has typically struggled over the last several years. Even when the Orange are at the top of NCAA heap, as we have been pretty often over the last few seasons, winning at Pitt has always been a struggle. Jamie Dixon knows how to play against Jim Boeheim, and his players grind and play physical basketball against the Orange every season.
The good news is that, like Syracuse, the Panthers are having a bit of a tough season, heading into the game with a 15-8 overall record that’s probably even a little misleading, considering the Panthers lost to Hawaii, needed overtime to beat Oakland, and just barely scraped out a win over Bryant in the team’s last game. They’ve also been pounded by NC State, lost in overtime against Virginia Tech, and beat Samford and St. Bonaventure by a combined total of just 11 points.
The Panthers are 4-5 in ACC play as they get set to host the Orange at the Pete, with the team getting by far its best win of the season on January 8 against then-No. 8 Notre Dame. But even with that win over the Irish, this is a Pittsburgh team that’s staring straight at a trip to the NIT, barring a miracle run in the ACC Tournament. After all, the Panthers follow the Syracuse game with a three straight against Louisville, North Carolina, and Virginia, with the first and third coming on the road. Oof. Miami and a trip to Syracuse are also looming, meaning the best chances for victory for the Panthers the rest of the way come against Boston College – a team they needed overtime to top by a single point earlier this year – and Wake Forest, with another winnable game at Florida State to close out the season.
In short, when the folks putting the schedule together this season decided to make Syracuse at Pitt a nationally televised game on ESPN2, they probably didn’t expect these kinds of seasons from the historically strong rivals.
Pitt has been led all season by 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Michael Young, who averages 13.2 points and 7.8 rebounds and will give Rakeem Christmas a big test in the post. However, Young has had some recent struggles against other talented big men, including scoring 11 points with only four rebounds while battling foul trouble against Jahlil Okafor and Duke, though he did put up a solid 14 points and nine boards before fouling out in a loss to Montrezl Harrell and Louisville.
If you’re looking at those two lines and noticing the fouls, that really hasn’t been a huge story for Young most of the year, as he heads into tomorrow’s game averaging just 2.5 fouls per game. Still, it’s interesting to note that when he’s tasked with guarding high level big men, that’s when the foul issues come up. Which is obviously expected, because there’s a reason those players are elite. It’s just something to keep an eye on, particularly as Syracuse tries to make a concerted effort to involve Christmas on the offensive end of the court.
Jamel Artis is another player to watch for Pitt, as the 6-foot-7 sophomore is second on the team in both points (12.4) and rebounds (5.5), and has added some range to his game this season, hitting 41.2% of his 51 three point attempts. Artis has been the team’s most reliable scoring threat over the last six games, going for 20 points or better in four of those games including a 32 point effort in the narrow win against Bryant. He’s also hit seven of his last 13 attempts from long range, so he’s on a role in that department as well.
This is an extremely young team that Jamie Dixon has been putting on the court most nights, with senior Cameron Wright and junior James Robinson as the only upperclassmen getting at least 10 minutes per game. Robinson, a 6-foot-3 guard, plays the most minutes on the team and averages 10.1 points and 5.1 assists per game, but isn’t much of a threat from beyond the arc. In reality, this season beyond Artis, the Panthers haven’t been particularly strong from deep, collectively.
Pitt heads into the game shooting 33.3% as a team, and their 104 made threes are the third fewest in the ACC this season. The reality is that even the things Pitt is best known for, like rebounding, are also down across the board. The Panthers rank just 12th in the ACC in rebounds per game, though it should be noted that more than a third of their boards (12.8) come on the offensive end of the court. That’s the fourth best average in the conference.
If you’re looking for the standard “guy who comes out of nowhere to have a career day against Syracuse” candidate, watch for Josh Newkirk, a 6-foot-1 sophomore who hits 37% from deep, or possibly the 6-foot-6 Chris Jones, a sophomore swingman who scored 13 against Louisville and 12 against Duke not too long ago. He’s certainly not a great three point shooter, hitting 33.8% of his attempts, but he knocked down five triples in the loss to Hawaii and has hit three treys in two other games. He’s only hit two of his last 11, so he feels like a candidate to break out of a slump against the sometimes sluggish 2-3 zone.
It’ll be an interesting game to watch, seeing as it’s a meeting of two teams headed in the absolute wrong direction this season. For Syracuse, the players already know that the season is virtually over, and they’ve got nothing left to play for but pride. For Pitt, there has to be a sense that earning a spot in the Big Dance is a longshot, but simultaneously, Jamie Dixon must know that there aren’t many winnable games left on his schedule, and he’ll have his guys ready to fight tomorrow at home against the Orange.