Matchup Preview: Pittsburgh at Syracuse

The Orange are looking to avenge a loss earlier this year against the Pittsburgh Panthers.

The Matchup: Pittsburgh (17-10, 6-7) at Syracuse (17-9, 8-5)
Date: 2/21/15
Time: 12:00pm Eastern
Location: Carrier Dome (Syracuse, NY)
Television: ESPN3

Key Players

SF Michael Gbinije – Syracuse: Gbinije has been on a tear over the last four games. The junior wing never takes a bad shot, is always under control, plays exceptional defense, rebounds well and distributes. The way he is playing down the stretch of this season suggests he could be the go-to guy next year. His recent strong play started at Pittsburgh where he poured in 23 points and had four steals. Gbinije is a touch matchup for the Panthers, and will look to continue his strong play.

C Rakeem Christmas – Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas was simply spectacular on Wednesday, leading the Orange to an upset of Louisville with 29 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks. He got back on track after two subpar performances. He had 23, 12 and 6 against Pitt the last time out, and there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat that performance. The Panthers do not have a low-post player who can defend Christmas.

PG James Robinson – Pittsburgh: Robinson is a solid point guard who hurt Syracuse in the last matchup with his outside shooting. His strength is getting into the lane and finding open players. Penetration always creates problems for the zone. That combination will force Syracuse to stay disciplined defensively.

SF Jamel Artis – Pittsburgh: Artis is Pitt’s best player and leading scorer. He is also their best outside shooter at 42% from beyond the arc. Artis torched the Orange in the last matchup, finding room in the open spot at the free-throw line. He finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. Look for Artis to play a similar role in this one.


- Pitt is just 1-7 on the season on the road, including 1-5 in conference. Of their seven losses, four of them were by double figures.

- Syracuse is 13-3 at home, 5-2 in conference play.

- Rakeem Christmas is second in the conference in scoring overall (18.2 ppg) and in conference games (19.0 ppg).

- Christmas also leads the conference in blocked shots in conference games at 2.9 per game.

- Michael Gbinije leads the conference in three-point percentage in conference games at 51%.

- Pitt is last in the conference in field goal percentage defense. Syracuse is fifth.

- Syracuse needs three wins over the last five games in order to keep their streak of 20 wins seasons alive. It currently sits at 17. Syracuse finished 19-13 in the 1996-97 season, the last one in which they fell short of the 20-win mark.

Pittsburgh Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

Pittsburgh rotates a lot of guys in and out of the lineup. Their depth allows them to stay fresh throughout the game. However, outside of Artis, they can be wildly inconsistent. James Robinson has a good outside shot, but disappears in some games.

Michael Young is an undersized power forward, but plays physical inside basketball. While he is productive, he is not the type to take over a game like Artis has done in the past.

Overall, the Pitt offense is predicated on gritty, tough play, guard penetration and hitting open shots. Jamie Dixon teams always play well against the zone because they have players who shoot from the outside, get in the lane and pass extremely well.

This season, the Panthers do not have the same type of weapons as they have in recent years. While they played very well offensively in the last matchup, their recent history suggests they will not be able to match that output.

Specifically, they are not the same offensive team on the road as they are at home. They are averaging just 58 points in conference road games compared to 74 points per game at home in conference.

The Syracuse zone was very good in the second half against Louisville. Kaleb Joseph and Trevor Cooney set the tone as they prevented penetration from the Cardinals’ backcourt. They will need to do the same in this one against Robinson and Cameron Wright, both of which are solid off the dribble.

The Orange also have to find Artis everywhere he goes. He was phenomenal against Syracuse last time out, and will be the focus of the Panther offense once again. It is paramount that Syracuse stay on him to prevent open looks from the outside while they guard him at the free-throw line when he tries to facilitate.

Conversely, Pitt will try to use a lot of ball movement to catch the Orange in zone rotations to get open looks for Artis, Robinson and other shooters.

Syracuse Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense

Pitt is always tough defensively, playing a physical style that wears opponents down. The last time out, however, Syracuse got almost any shot they wanted and made a lot of them.

Christmas and Gbinije pose matchup problems for the Panthers. They have no one that can guard Rak inside one-on-one, and the Orange exploited that advantage previously. They will do so again this time around.

Gbinije is just as difficult to guard. His ability to hit the outside shot as well as attack the rim off the dribble means whoever guards him is in a bind. Jamel Artis can matchup physically, but has difficulty keeping him out of the lane.

Pittsburgh does not have any rim protectors, which means Syracuse will frequently attack from the inside-out. Penetration from Gbinije and playing through Christmas inside should open up things for others.

That includes Cooney getting looks from the outside. He has struggled in recent games, but if he keeps taking open shots, they will start to fall.

Tyler Roberson has been much more aggressive lately, and the lack of an interior defensive presence should allow him to continue that style of play. He’s averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds over the last two games.

Final Thoughts

Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh is always a close battle. This one should be no different. But with the way the Orange is playing in recent games and how poorly the Panthers play at home, Syracuse should be the favorite in this one. That said, Pitt always plays them tough and Jamie Dixon teams are always well coached.

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