Orange Drop Season Opener

The Syracuse Orange dropped their Big East opener to Pittsburgh 74-66 on Thursday evening in the Carrier Dome. Levance Fields led the visiting Panthers with a career high 24 points, almost triple his season average. Syracuse's inability to defend the perimeter late in the game was a major factor in the loss, along with their struggles on the offensive end.

With the loss, the Orange fell to 11-4 overall and 0-1 in Big East play. More importantly, Syracuse continues to sport a resume that is devoid of quality wins. Considering that SU entered the game ranked #70 in the RPI, it will take double-digit Big East wins for the team to avoid the proverbial NCAA bubble.

The Orange started the game by playing with good intensity and built a small but comfortable lead early on. They managed to control the tempo and keep Pitt from developing any offensive rhythm for most of the first half. Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts combined for 12 points in the first 10 minutes, but neither player was able to maintain that level of efficiency. Roberts would eventually leave after sustaining an injury by colliding with a Pitt player.

Syracuse's most costly first half error came with only seconds remaining before halftime. Holding a slim 34-31 lead, the Orange held the ball for the last shot of the half, but Eric Devendorf was stripped on a dribble penetration move and the ball squirted to half-court, where the Panthers recovered it and Mike Cook streaked in for a one-handed lay-up at the buzzer.

Cook's layup cut the SU lead to one at 34-33 to end the half with a 4-0 run. Pitt extended the run to 11-0 by scoring the first 7 points of the second half, and suddenly all the hard work of the first half was negated. From that point forward, the Panthers were able to dictate tempo and determine the flow of the game. Syracuse tied it at 40 with a 6-0 run, but slowly let things get out of hand as Levance Field (24 pts, 5 ast) buried a pair of three pointers and Aaron Gray (9 pts, 9 reb) chipped in a pair of layups.

Syracuse made several small pushes to get back in the game, highlight by back-to-back jumpers by Andy Rautins and a few nice scoring drives by Eric Devendorf, but each time the game got close, Pitt seemed to answer with a three point basket. Four different Panthers hit three pointers as the team combined to hit 41% from beyond the arc (9 of 22).

Eric Devendorf… What's going on here?

Revisiting OrangeNation's pre-game analysis, Syracuse's top 4 issues coming into the game were 1) frontcourt depth, 2) point guard play, 3) defense, and 4) halfcourt offense. The first issue, frontcourt depth, was clearly a factor tonight, as SU played many minutes with Harris and Nichols up front due to the injury to Roberts.

However, this wouldn't have changed much if Roberts wasn't injured, as he collected 5 fouls in just 22 minutes, so he wouldn't have been able to play more regardless. Clearly, moving Nichols to the 4 position affected his shooting, as banging against bigger players takes a lot out of your legs (and consequently your jump shot). That doesn't totally explain away his 4-15 performance, but it was obviously a factor. Nichols opened up the game with 8 points in the first 15 minutes, but was basically invisible from that point forward.

The Panthers and Orange played to a 35 all tie on the glass, which was a very good sign, particularly with Roberts out for most of the game. Paul Harris (6 pts, 9 reb) and Mookie Watkins (11 pts, 8 reb) were SU's most active players on the glass.

Point guard play and halfcourt offense were definitely negatives. Josh Wright was benched midway through the second half after a series of questionable plays. His greatest asset is his speed, but if he is not able to jumpstart the transition offense, he becomes a big liability. He seems to possess the quickness to get by most defenders, but has shown almost no ability to pass off the dribble and has not done a good job of finishing once he gets into the paint.

Josh Wright watched the last 8 minutes from the bench.

The same is only partially true of Eric Devendorf, who finished out the game at the point. Devendorf had some solid minutes late in the game, regaining his touch around the basket with some impressive scoring drives. Unlike Wright, he has a good chance of finishing once he breaks down the defense, but like Wright he has no ability to set up his teammates for scoring opportunities once he gets into the paint. Any offense generated by Devendorf from the point position is solely generated for himself. Players who are limited in this fashion rarely contribute to sustained team excellence.

A big problem with the point guard play, particularly in the second half, was that neither Wright nor Devendorf were able to deliver the ball to Nichols in easy scoring positions. Part of this was due to some stellar defense by Antonio Graves (9 pts, 5 ast), but much of it was due to the SU point guards' inability to run a crisp, smooth offense. Syracuse did manage 13 assists on 25 baskets, but the Panthers were outstanding at sharing the ball, registering 19 assists on 28 buckets, greater than 65% passing efficiency.

The other major pregame issue was defense and intensity. Syracuse opened the game in the man to man defense and held Pitt to 2 points for the first 3 minutes, but Boeheim abandoned the man to man after the Panthers' first score. For the remainder of the game, the 2-3 zone was in full effect. Once again, the effectiveness of the zone decreased as the Panthers became more familiar with it. The biggest defensive issue was clearly defending the perimeter, particularly with regards to the top of the zone, where Wright, Devendorf, and Rautins were all exposed on several occasions

Late in the game the Panthers were able to "unbalance" the zone on almost every possession and get open perimeter looks. Another thing that they were able to do was burn clock with no repercussions, as the SU zone is not designed to pressure the ball outside of 22 or 23 feet. Pitt was extremely patient and executed very well, making sure that most of their shots came with only seconds left on the shot clock.

When a team is down by 6 to 8 points with less than 5 minutes to go in the game, time becomes their biggest enemy. Lying back in the zone allows the opposition to take command of the game clock and determine how the remainder of the game will be played. For this evening at least, the opposition made all the right plays and gutted out a 74-66 win.

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