Five To Watch: Pitt-Syracuse

A game between Pitt and Syracuse with high stakes involved is nothing new to this series. The two teams last met, with Syracuse as the No. 1 team in the country, a recently in 2012 in Syracuse. Both were top-five teams in the 2011 meeting in Pittsburgh.

* It sounds simple, but Pitt needs to score out of the 40s. In its last three games, the Panthers have not scored more than 40 points in regulation. Two of those games, of course, went to overtime. Both of those overtime games were wins. However, Jamie Dixon admitted Monday that the offense is a concern.

"Finishing inside is something we're trying to improve on," Dixon said.

Dixon is right. Over the last four games, Pitt is 2-2. In that stretch, Pitt has been outrebounded in all four games, including a 45-28 domination by the last-place team in the ACC, Virginia Tech.

Some of these rebounds won't instantly translate into points, but second chance points, even more specifically offensive rebounds--Pitt's frontcourt needs to get this area addressed, for starters, in order to keep up with Syracuse's size inside.

"We have to get that addressed, and get it taken care of," Dixon added. "We've got to block out better. We've got to make shots. We've got to make the long rebounds better."

* The infamous 2-3 zone run by Syracuse makes its triumphant return to the Petersen Events Center.

The 2-3 zone is a basic concept, one that many teams including Pitt try to employ. Syracuse, however, is on a whole new level. Mostly because of the personnel.

It all comes down to a couple of big, athletic wings in Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair, with Rakeem Christmas sneaking in as a shotblocker. It shouldn't be surprising that a player with Christmas' stature be a shotblocker. However, opponents get tricked into it. Fair and Grant--each 6-8--almost set the zone themselves because of their height and wingspan. If you're lucky enough to get by them, chances are Christmas--at 6-9--is able to provide the quick help and either block the shot attempt, or just simply slide and defend.

"They do what they're supposed to do," Dixon added. "They do some things differently, things you have to attack. Their zone is different every year.

"They recruit for that. They have three high-level big guys that were recruited for their defense first, offense second. There's some really good things there. They do what they are supposed to do."

It's obviously a group effort, but the guy who matters in most is Christmas. Pitt was able to take some of those rebounds in the last meeting, as he only pulled down four. It worked for Pitt, as they were able to give Syracuse a game. They could almost come in with the same gameplan. There's no question, though, that Jim Boeheim will make some sort of adjustment from the last game--which is why it's such a tough zone to play against.

* The health of Lamar Patterson. Patterson scored 25 in a win at Miami last Wednesday, almost single-handedly taking over the game. He shot 3-14 from the field in a loss to Virginia last week, then was held scoreless through regulation on Saturday, shooting 1-9 from the field.

Patterson can play if hurt, as he's proven in his career. However, the seriousness of this hand/thumb/wrist hasn't been discussed much.

"I noticed, going through the (postgame handshake), he reached out wit his left hand, kind of holding his right hand," Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson said after Saturday's Pitt win.

Dixon was mum on Patterson's status, mum on whether Patterson would play Wednesday. Technically, Patterson didn't practice Monday, according to Dixon. However, neither did the rest of the team, due to the NCAA-mandated day off. Conventional wisdom says if Patterson played Saturday, with four days in between games, he will probably play.

"We'll see," Dixon said. "It hasn't been put in a game situation."

* Tyler Ennis. The true freshman is averaging 11.7 points a game. With so many other things clicking for this team, and with a number of key returning starters to this year's team, Ennis has been a welcome addition to this year, one of the top freshmen in the country. With guys like Fair and Grant averaging in double-figures, and guard Trevor Cooney also in double-figures, it's easy to forget about the newcomer in the starting lineup. Even if he was a solid contributor, Ennis would be a worry. Unfortunately for opponents, Ennis is playing like an experienced veteran.

* History is going to be one someone's side Wednesday night. Syracuse enters the contest with an overall record of 23-0, the best start in school history. It's also the third-best start in ACC history, behind the 1973 N.C. State team (27-0) and the 1957 North Carolina team (32-0).

Pitt is 9-0 against Top-5 teams in the Petersen Events Center. That includes a 70-60 Pitt win over Connecticut in 2009 when the Huskies were ranked No. 1, and a 74-66 Pitt win over Syracuse in 2011. In that 2011 contest, Pitt was fifth, Syracuse third.

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