SG Michael Gbinije – Syracuse: The do-it-all guard has been a bright spot for the Orange during a tough stretch. Having stepped up as a primary ball handler and a top flight scoring option with the ball in his hands, Gbinije has taken some of the offensive load off of senior center, Rakeem Christmas. This season Gbinije has found his touch from beyond the arc, knocking down threes at an impressive 40 percent clip. While he’s opened up the offense from beyond the arc, it’s his ability to get into the lane that has been the best part of his game this season. On the year Gbinije is averaging 11.4 points-per-game, 4.9 rebounds-per-game and 3.4 assists-per-game.
C Rakeem Christmas – Syracuse: Christmas has been the story all season for Syracuse and that shouldn’t change against the Panthers. Although a bit undersized for a center at 6’9”, Christmas has made substantial improvements at both ends of the floor. Offensively, Christmas has become the go-to option on offense from either low block. He’s able to get into the lane and flush it home, or he can spin away from the basket and hook home his shot, making him a very tough matchup for any forward.
PF Michael Young – Pittsburgh: A sophomore who has started every game in his Panthers career, Young is arguably the most important Pitt player for head coach Jamie Dixon. A tenacious rebounder due to his size, anticipation and athleticism, Young will give Syracuse’s forwards a lot of problems on the glass. Offensively, the New Jersey native has improved his hook shot with either hand while possessing the ability to step out to 16 feet and knock down jumpers. In the 2014-15 season, Young is averaging 13.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg and one apg.
F Jamel Artis – Pittsburgh: Artis might be the most improved Panthers player in 2014-15. In the sophomore’s past five games, he hasn’t scored less than 17 points (including a career-high 32 points against Bryant, Monday) and hasn’t shot less than 53 percent from the floor. It’s safe to say Artis is on fire. The forward gets to the free throw line at an impressive rate and can step out to knock down threes at an efficient clip. Chris McCullough would have been the ideal matchup for Artis, but now that the freshman forward is out for the year the Panthers have a mismatch to exploit.
SYRACUSE OFFENSE VS. PITTSBURGH DEFENSE
Through 22 games it’s pretty easy to see what the Syracuse offense is all about: dump the ball down low to Christmas and let him create something. But, when teams decide to pack it in against Syracuse, guards Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinijehas to create on the fly. Usually, it works out. Combined, the two veteran guards have shot the ball at a strong 37.7 percent from beyond the arc. When Cooney and Gbinije click from deep it makes the low post an easier place to work for Christmas and forward Tyler Roberson.
Outside of Christmas, Cooney and Gbinije it’s usually a mystery as to where the Orange offense will come from. Roberson tends to struggle when facing up to the basket. Most of his points come from offensive rebounds that he puts back up or open dunks and layup in transition. Freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph can shoot well when open, but he tends to hesitate and doesn’t look overly confident offensively. Ron Patterson was expected to be a threat off the bench as a quick-trigger offensive threat from all over the floor, but he’s struggled to gain consistency while shooting a woeful 26 percent from the floor (16.7 percent from deep).
Look for the Orange to once again rely on their big three, but it will be up to Roberson to step up and ease the burden, giving the Orange a spark at both ends while on the road.
The good news is that the Panthers allow the 131st most points in the country at 64.5 ppg.
PITTSBURGH OFFENSE VS. SYRACUSE DEFENSE
Most nights the Panthers offense looks much like the Orange offense: stagnant and limited to three players on a consistent basis. For the Panthers, guys like Artis, Young and point guard James Robinson are the only scorers in double-figures. However, unlike the Orange the Panthers have a lot of depth and scoring options off the bench, which could ultimately lead the Panthers to victory, Saturday.
Off the bench, Dixon can deploy guard Josh Newkirk (37 percent from deep), guard Cameron Johnson (4.5 ppg in 15 mpg) and sophomore forward Sheldon Jeter (former Vanderbilt transfer) who can all pitch in with quality minutes at both ends of the floor.
With Robinson running the show for the Panthers, they’re usually in the right spots but it’s the inconsistency with finishing plays and making the right decisions with the ball that has slowed the Panthers this season. As a team, the Panthers shoot just 44.4 percent from the field (134th in the country) and score just under 68 ppg (168th in the country).
Against the Orange, Robinson will have to be able to penetrate the zone and find guys like Newkirk, Artis and Cameron Wright on the wings. Whether they shoot from beyond the arc or look to drive to the basket on their own, the focus for Pitt should be on taking (and making) quality shots trip after trip down the floor. Doing that will go a long way towards knocking off the visiting Orange.
The first test after a self-imposed post season ban for the Orange will be an interesting one as they square off with the rival Panthers. This should be a tight game that is likely decided in the final minute or so, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Christmas, Cooney and Gbinije come out with a chip on their shoulder and try to run away with this one. Prediction: Pittsburgh 64, Syracuse 63