The last time Syracuse University and Pittsburgh squared off, the Panthers didn’t take their first lead of the game until they scored their 51st point against the Orange. Turns out having an early lead doesn’t much matter if you can’t hang on, a fact that the Orange have discovered a few too many times during their 17-9 season. Pittsburgh topped the Orange 83-77 at the Peterson Event Center, and today Syracuse will be looking for a little bit of vengeance as they continue trying to close the season strong.
The Pitt loss came just three days after the Orange found out about the school’s self-imposed postseason ban, and Syracuse has won two of the last three games since falling to the Panthers, with the only loss coming against No. 4-ranked Duke. The Panthers, on the other hand, have lost two of three, though they’ve faced a murderer’s row of ACC competition. Jamie Dixon’s club fell to Louisville by 13 before turning around and beating North Carolina by 13, and then most recently dropped a 61-49 game at Virginia.
Right now the Panthers are on the outside looking in when it comes to an NCAA Tournament berth, coming to the Carrier Dome today with a record of 17-10 overall but hovering below .500 in ACC play with a record of 6-7. Every win is crucial for the Panthers at this point. After today’s game, Pittsburgh has four very winnable games, against Boston College, Wake Forest, Miami, and Florida State, so they’ve certainly got a chance to close strong and bolster their tournament resume.
On the other side, today is one of just two home games left for the Orange, and with Rakeem Christmas seeing his college career rapidly coming to an end, I’d be willing to wager he’s going to be playing with a chip on his shoulder in his last two games on Jim Boeheim Court. Christmas was nearly perfect in the team’s upset win over Louisville on Wednesday, scoring 29 points on 9-of-10 shooting. Christmas scored 23 points in the loss at Pitt, and if the second half of the win over the Cardinals taught the team anything it’s that pounding the ball into the paint, rather than launching a bunch of jump shots, is the team’s best chance to win games the rest of the way.
Syracuse has a daunting final stretch after today’s meeting with Pitt, going on the road to face Notre Dame on Tuesday, followed by a trip to Cameron Indoor to face Duke on February 28. Senior night for Rakeem Christmas against No. 2-ranked Virginia follows two days later, before the season wraps up on the road against NC State. That’s a difficult stretch, to say the least, which also means that today’s game against the Panthers is the team’s best chance to pick up another win the rest of the way.
And if the Orange play like they have in recent games against Duke and Louisville, there’s no reason to think they shouldn’t beat the Panthers. Sure, the Orange will have to do a better job against Jamel Artis, who scored 20 points, grabbed 10 boards, and handed out five assists in the last meeting, and Syracuse can’t afford to let Sheldon Jeter – who went into that first meeting averaging just 2.9 points per game but has averaged 14.0 ever since he torched the Orange for 18 – hurt them like that again. Michael Young will more than likely get his points and rebounds, just like in the last meeting when he scored 13 and pulled down 11 rebounds.
At this point in the season, the things that Syracuse needs to focus on in order to pull out the win only serve to make me sound like a broken record. The Orange need to do a much better job stopping penetration from Pitt’s guards, and the second half of the Louisville game was certainly a good start. The Cards sliced and diced the Syracuse zone in that first half, but once the 2-3 tightened up in the second half, the Orange started to take control.
Trevor Cooney also has to, finally, get back on track. He’s been dismal shooting the ball lately, and in fact didn’t even take a shot in the final 10 minutes against Louisville. At some point, hopefully he’ll remember that his points came easier during a strong stretch in the middle of the year when he looked to attack the basket, and didn’t simply float around the perimeter, looking to launch three pointers. That’s a sure way to make yourself the most easily defended player on the court, and he needs to realize he can’t be so one dimensional, especially when he’s struggling so mightily with that one dimension in the first place.
On paper, Syracuse should take this game. The Orange are playing better basketball than the Panthers right now, and the home court advantage has to count for something. As long as Jim Boeheim’s club can defend like they did in the second half against Louisville, and remember to look for offense in the paint more than on the perimeter, they should be able to pick up an 8-10 point victory. Syracuse should control the glass, as the Panthers come in as just the 210th best rebounding team in the country, while Syracuse ranks 57th nationally.
Obviously it’s not easy to just chalk up a win against Pitt, considering how well Jamie Dixon typically does against Jim Boeheim. But right now, I’ll be a little bit surprised if Syracuse doesn’t come away with the win.