It has been one of the most stunning turnarounds in Syracuse basketball history. Less than ten days ago, the Orange were 108-69 losers to the DePaul Blue Demons in the worst loss in head coach Jim Boeheim's career. That game was the low point of the season, as the Orange dropped a game below .500 in league play and more importantly looked dead in the water when it came to an NCAA tourney bid. SU followed that up with a 92-82 loss to Villanova on senior day in the Carrier Dome to finish at 7-9 in in the Big East. Who would have predicted that this same team would play for the conference championship just a week later?
An interesting thing happened in that 'Nova game. Although the Orange lost, it looked like they were playing with a little more fire and intensity than they had shown in early defeats. Also significant was the fact that Gerry McNamara got white hot in the second half and willed his team to within 6 points late in the game. It was the first real spark of McNamara Magic that fans had seen since earlier in the year when Gerry scored the game-winning bucket on the road at Notre Dame. Gerry finished with 29 points and 8 assists in a performance that clearly foreshadowed his heroic play in Madison Square Garden this week.
Now only one team remains between SU and it's second Big East Tourney Championship in a row - the rough and tumble Pittsburgh Panthers. The Panthers knocked off #2 seed Villanova 68-54 in the semifinals behind 18 points from Antonio Graves. The Panthers enter the at 24-6 overall and finished at 10-6 in league play, good for a three way tie for 3rd. Pitt also knocked off Louisville and West Virginia on its way to the championship game. Let's take a closer look at the Panthers:
Personnel: The Panthers have only two double-digit scorers in Karl Krauser (15.0 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Aaron Gray (13.8 ppg, 10.5 rbg). To counter the lack of prolific scorers, head coach Jamie Dixon typically goes deep into his bench with 7 others players that score between 3 and 8 points a contest. Ronald Ramon is the team's third option on offense due to his strong perimeter shooting (>40% on threes). Two other players who are capable of big scoring numbers are 6-6 FR F Sam Young and 6-9 JR F Levon Kendall. Other key players are wings Antonio Graves and Keith Benjamin and guards Levance Fields and John DeGroat. Benjamin in particularly always seems to play well against SU.
Despite the strong supporting cast, the Pitt offense revolves mostly around Krauser and Gary. Krauser is hard to figure out, as it often looks like he'll go an entire game on autopilot, then turn it on in crunch time. Simply put, he is one of the most clutch players in the country. Krauser lit up the Orange for 32 points back on January 23rd and he has a history of making huge shots late in games against Syracuse. He is a versatile player who can score in transition or from the perimeter, and he is also one of the strongest, most physical guards in the nation.
Gray is not a classic center in terms of having great post moves, but what he does have is great desire and positioning around the basket. He's good for almost 4 offensive rebounds a game, and the Pitt players often rely on him to track down their misses and turn them into easy putback opportunities. He can be slowed down at the foul line, where he shoots a mediocre 62%.
Outlook: The Pittsburgh style, as developed by previous head coach Ben Howland, centers mainly on hard-nosed defense. They don't block a ton of shots or generate a lot of turnovers, but they contest everything and rebound the ball as well as any team in the league. A lot of this is due to Gray's league-leading 10+ boards a game, but even Krauser hauls in almost 4 and a half per contest. Pitt eliminates second chance opportunities and plays a deliberate style of offense. In many respects, they are similar to Georgetown in that they look to slow the game down and limit possessions whenever possible. The Pitt offense hasn't been that effective in recent games, as they have been held between 61 and 68 points for 5 straight games. The fact that they have still managed 3 wins over this stretch shows what kind of defense they play.
The keys for Syracuse tonight are simple: keep doing what they've been doing. The Orange need to continue competing with the same type of "do-or-die" attitude that they have brought to the last three games. They need to be able to take whatever Pitt throws at them. Pitt is the type of team that plays very physical basketball, so the Orange will need to get to the floor for loose balls, bang underneath for rebounds, and set solid screens to negate the clutch-and-bump defense that the Panthers employ. If Syracuse can match the effort and physicality of the Panthers, they should be in the game in the closing minutes. If the game is close down the wire, who knows what could happen this time around?
Both teams will be exhausted. Look for things to be sloppy early and have difficulty settling into a rhythm. At this point, the Orange are definitely in the NCAA tourney, so they are playing for seeding now. A win tonight would help them avoid the dreaded 8/9 game, but a loss might not. The way things have gone the first 3 days of this tourney, it would hard not to pick the Orange(men) in this game. Prediction: Syracuse wins another tight one - 63-62.