Pittsburgh opens ACC regular season against Syracuse

The Pittsburgh Panthers open the 2015-2016 season against a familiar opponent.

Pitt opens its third season of ACC play Wednesday against Syracuse, a team the Panthers have played 106 times in program history. Safe to say, the teams know one another pretty well.

Syracuse (10-3) runs a 2-3 zone which Pitt (10-1) is familiar with, among other Orange tendencies. Jamel Artis in particular has developed a reputation as a "zone-buster" as he scored 36 points and handed out 12 assists in two Pitt wins against the Orange last season.

"I just know what to do in the zone," Artis said. "Guys key in on me and I just find open guys."

There's not much of a secret to Artis' skill against zone defenses, which he put on display when he scored 29 points against Western Carolina last week. It's just a matter of using his natural basketball sense to make the right play.

Sometimes, Artis' teammates don't even know that he's passing them the ball. But it usually ends up being the right play.

"I feel like I have a great IQ on the floor," Artis said. "I know where my guys are going to be on the floor, they've just got to be ready to catch the ball. My guys, they're going to knock their shots down." 

The key to any zone is penetration, and Artis will look to suck the defense in by getting touches near the free throw line. The shifting defense creates open areas under the basket or on the perimeter for Pitt's shooters like Chris Jones or Sterling Smith. 

Jones scored averaged 17 points per game in Pitt's wins against Syracuse last season and made 8 of 12 3-pointers on looks largely set up by Artis' work on the interior.

"Jamel does a great job of getting in there," Jones said. "He knows where to get catches at and he knows the right plays to make. He makes the right passes and he takes the shot when he needs to."

Michael Young leads Pitt with averages of 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, while Artis' 15.5 points per game help form a high-scoring forward tandem. Senior James Robinson averages 10.6 points alongside 5.4 assists per game and he leads the nation with a 6.56:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Michael Gbinije leads Syracuse at 18.6 points per game and has scored in double-figures in each of the Orange's 13 games this season. Sharpshooter Trevor Cooney is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.5 points per game.

Freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon have made an immediate impact for the Orange, with Richardson scoring 12.1 points and Lydon 10.6 per game.

Pitt faces Syracuse for the 19th time under head coach Jamie Dixon who owns a 12-6 career mark against the Orange. The extensive exposure between the programs has caused Dixon to adopt some of Syracuse's own principles into his defense.

"We play a similar type of zone as Syracuse so we're practicing against it every day," Dixon said. "It does prepare us in some ways against it but we've got to attack it, get offensive rebounds and limit their transition baskets."

Dixon also noted he picked up on certain concepts from Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim as a result of working together under the USA Basketball umbrella, among other things.

An added wrinkle to tonight's matchup, or maybe a missing one, will be the presence of Mike Hopkins on the Syracuse sidelines instead of the suspended Jim Boeheim.

But regardless of who coaches, Dixon says the Orange are doing the same things this year they've done year after year.

"Coach Hopkins played for him and has coached there for awhile," Dixon said. "I'm thinking he was keeping his eyes open when he's been there all the way through."

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