Here is a look at the main questions that will need to be answered for tonight's game:
1) Frontcourt depth. By all accounts, Terrence Roberts should be cleared to play tonight, but he may be rusty after sitting for the last two weeks. If he can't go at full speed, the Orange will be left shorthanded up front, with only Watkins, Gorman, Nichols, and Harris capable of manning the baseline of the zone. Pitt is a very physical team, so matching up strong in the frontcourt is of paramount importance. This problem is further exacerbated by the unexpected departure of Mike Jones.
2) Ballhandling/point guard play. Josh Wright has been steadily improving, but he has not seen the type of pressure that Pitt is likely to apply. Can he continue to generate transition offense, take care of the ball in the halfcourt, and avoid unforced errors? Boeheim tried Devendorf and Harris at the point for extended periods against St. Bonaventure, so it is clear that he has a backup role in mind if need be. The team as a whole needs to improve on taking care of the ball. They have been better in recent games (only 9 TO vs. the Bonnies), but in early games the Orange(men) were coughing up the ball at a ridiculous pace.
3) Defense. I don't care what defense the Orange play, they will need to play it with intensity and fire. The Bonnies, one of the poorest offensive teams in D1, managed to score 70 points against SU's assortment of man to man and zone defenses. Pitt is a very patient team on the offensive end. They have been very efficient this year, shooting over 50% as a team, and have hit 90 three pointers at a 38% clip. When the Panthers are not making shots, they are crashing the offensive glass. The combination of patience, high outside shooting percentage, and strong offensive board work could be deadly against the SU zone.
4) Halfcourt offense. This ties in somewhat with PG play and ballhandling. Someone other than Demetris Nichols needs to show that they can score in the halfcourt. Devendorf has been up and down this year and hasn't shown any consistency. Harris's offensive game has been limited in a Josh Pace type of "interior or bust" style. Roberts and Wright both seem more comfortable scoring in transition. Watkins has made big strides in recent games, scoring with regularity on post-up moves. He will need to give a big effort tonight for the Orange to get by the Panthers.
A look at the Panthers. Aaron Gray is the centerpiece of Jamie Dixon's squad. The 7-0 center posts 16 points and 11 boards a game, plays excellent position defense, and has also blocked about 1.5 shots a game. His biggest weakness is at the foul line, where he only converts about 60% of his shots.
Dixon goes 9 deep with his rotation. This is a legitimate 9 – each of these players averages double figures in minutes and they've all played in all 14 games this year. No player averages more than 28 minutes per game, so the Panthers maintain a high level of defensive intensity throughout each contest.
The starting backcourt is Antonio Graves and Levance Fields. Graves has been scorching the nets at 48% from beyond the arc. Fields has posted a stellar 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, which must be shocking for Pitt fans after 3 years of Carl Krauser carelessness.
The starting forwards are Levon Kendall and Mike Cook. Kendall is the team's second leading rebounder and has burned the SU zone in the past, but this season he's only 1-9 from three-point range. Doubtless that will change tonight. Cook, a former teammate of Hakim Warrick at Friends Central, is a 6-4 wide body who knows how to work the baseline for easy scoring opportunities. He loves to work the midrange game, but will step outside and fire up long range shots on occasion. He is remarkably efficient on the offensive end, shooting greater than 55% from the field and scoring 12 ppg in about 24 minutes.
Dixon gets about 25 points per game off the bench, keyed by Ronald Ramon and Sam Young. Ramon is an outside shooting specialist while Young is a freakish athlete who has had many highlight reel "cut-catch-and-dunk" plays against the SU zone. The weak side wing defender will need to pinch off his cuts or we'll see more of the same tonight.
The final two bench players are Tyrell Biggs and Keith Benjamin. Both are capable of putting up double digits in the scoring column on any given game. Biggs is another big, strong interior player, while Benjamin does most of his damage slashing from the wings and scoring in transition.
Outlook I would feel better about this game if Boeheim had been able to settle on a clear-cut rotation earlier in the year and develop it prior to league play. As is, this is a tough team to play while still trying to figure out what your team can do.
The Panthers are unselfish and very crisp on the offensive side. The team averages 20 assists per game and takes good shots. They spread around their scoring so they can survive an off shooting night by any of their main scorers. They have multiple perimeter shooters, and they are also effective on the offensive glass. They own a +7 per game rebounding margin, so they close out defensive possessions very well.
On the positive side for Syracuse, the Orange are more athletic and have better open court speed. If Wright, Nichols, Harris, and Roberts can get out and run in transition then they can negate many of Pitt's positives. In order to do that, the ‘Cuse will need to hold their own on the glass and also force some turnovers. Given the lack of intensity that the team has shown in recent games, this may be a tall order tonight. Call me a pessimist, but I don't see SU making all of the necessary adjustments needed to win this game.
Prediction: Syracuse fails to depend a cohesive offensive flow and Gray pulls in 6 or 7 offensive rebounds. Pitt 71, SU 58.