Pitt [20-8, 8-7 in Big East Conference play] enters Saturday's game one game ahead of the Orange in the conference standings. Like Syracuse, the Panthers have struggled of late, dropping three of their last four contests to Marquette, Notre Dame, and Louisville before securing a win over Cincinnati in their last game.
Earning a much-needed victory over the Panthers—who have won 3 out of the last four games at the Carrier Dome, and 9 of the last 12 games between the two programs overall—will be a formidable challenge for a Syracuse team that has struggled with execution of late on both sides of the ball.
Meet the Panthers
The Pittsburgh offense is keyed by the tough inside play of forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair. Young, a 6-6 junior, leads the Panthers in scoring with 18.1 per game. He does most of his damage inside, but is also capable of burning the opposition from three-point range [41% on trifectas] when he has time to line up his set shot. Young is second on the team in rebounding at 6.5 per game, and gets to the free throw line often.
Blair is a top candidate for the Big East Conference rookie of the year award. He excels in the paint, where he uses his burly 6-7 265 pound frame to devastating effect. For the season, he is averaging 12.2 points per game, and leads the team in both rebounding [9.6] and blocked shots [1.2].
Pitt's point guard is sophomore Levance Fields, a 5-10 guard from Brooklyn, New York. Fields sustained an injury in midseason that caused him to miss 12 games [the Panthers went 8-4 during that stretch], but his 35 minute outing against Cincinnati suggests that he is now close to being back at full strength. Fields averages 10.8 points and 5.3 assists—averages that have come down a bit after a strong start to the season. He has struggled from the field this year, connecting on only 40% of his field goal attempts overall, and 27% of his shots from three point range.
In Fields's absence, guards Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon stepped up and helped the Panthers stay afloat with solid, veteran play. Ramon, a 6-1 senior from the Bronx, is Pitt's most prolific three point shooter [35.3%]. A streak shooter in every sense of the word, nearly two-thirds of his field goal attempts come from behind the arc. For the season, Ramon averages 7.8 points and 4 assists per game.
Benjamin, an athletic 6-2 senior from Mt. Vernon, New York, is a player who excels at both taking the ball to the rim and torching it from three point range. He is Pitt's best statistical three point shooter, having connected on 42 of his 110 attempts from behind the arc [good for 38.2%]. Benjamin is also an aggressive defender who plays the passing lanes well and flourishes in transition. He averages 9.3 points, 2 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per contest.
Mike Cook, a powerful swingman transfer from East Carolina, was third on the team in scoring before suffering a season-ending knee injury. In his absence, look for Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon to alternate between using a three-guard lineup to compliment the inside scoring of Young / Blair, and mixing-and-matching lineups comprised of his three top reserves—Gilbert Brown, Tyrell Biggs, and Brad Wannamaker.
Brown is a 6-6 wing forward from Harrisburg, PA. He averages 6.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in approximately 22 minutes per game. He is an active defender with the size and athleticism to challenge the opposition's perimeter shooters.
Biggs, the top frontcourt reserve, is another massive post player who is tough in the paint. He averages 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, and knows how to throw his body around.
Wannamaker is the fourth guard in Dixon's backcourt rotation. He's played sparingly of late, but averages 2.4 points, 1.7 assists, and 1.2 rebounds in just over 11 minutes per game.
Getting a victory in Saturday's game is important for both teams. For Syracuse, it is important to pick up a home win to keeps the team's diminishing NCAA chances alive. A Pitt victory would likely knock the Orange out of NCAA contention, but solidify the Panthers' own NCAA prospects.
In order to procure this much needed home win, Syracuse will need to do the following:
- Handle the aggressive Pitt defensive pressure . Louisville demonstrated the blueprint for how to attack the Orange—utilize full court pressure to make the Orange expend maximum energy simply bringing the ball upcourt. Tired legs leads to poor shooting at the end of the game. The Orange need for point guard Jonny Flynn and wingman Paul Harris to do an adequate job against the Pitt pressure, and to counterattack by creating fast break opportunities. Pitt is not a shotblocking team, and hence will be susceptible to giving up easy scoring opportunities in transition if the Orange manage to consistently break the press.
- Compete on both the offensive and defensive boards . After being dominated on the glass by Louisville, the Orange bounced back with a much better effort on the backboards against Notre Dame. Because Pitt is not a prolific scoring team, the Panthers thrive on pounding the offensive glass and controlling the ball. The Orange need to hold their own against the powerful Pitt frontcourt on both sides of the ball to avoid letting the Panthers dictate tempo and milk the clock.
- Find and quickly close out on the Pitt shooters . Although not a prolific three-point shooting team, the Panthers have torn apart the Syracuse zone in several recent contests. Orange defenders will have to locate Ramon in particular to prevent him from getting on a roll, a la Notre Dame's Kyle McAlarney.
- Free throw shooting . Simply put, neither team is very good from the free throw line [both teams connect on a relatively poor 67% from the charity stripe]. With the exception of Ramon and Benjamin, no other player in the Pitt rotation shoots better than 69% from the line. Conversely, several Syracuse players connect on more than 72% from the line…a figure that is offset by the abysmal free throw shooting of Arinze Onuaku [46%], Rick Jackson [50%], and Kristof Onganeat [64%]. Given Pitt's physical style of play, the Orange ought to have plenty of opportunities to make the Panthers pay at the line—can they capitalize on those opportunities?
- Get Arinze Onuaku the ball down low . After suffering through a mini-slump a couple of games ago, Onuaku has been on a tear in recent games. He will be going against similarly sized players in Blair and Biggs, and the Syracuse big man needs to deliver.
- Get Donte Greene involved . To suggest that Syracuse's talented freshman has been struggling to put the ball in the basket would be a major understatement. Greene shot particularly poorly in the road losses to Louisville and Notre Dame. The Orange need him to play better at home, and snap out of his shooting funk.
- Eliminate unforced turnovers . The Panthers defend aggressively, and play best when they can keep the score in the sixties. The Orange have struggled to score of late, and need to take care of the ball to maximize each offensive possession and avoid playing Pitt's preferred style of play.
Syracuse is desperate for a win, and hope that playing at home will rectify the poor shooting that has plagued the Orange in their last two road games—both of which resulted in losses. Look for a better defensive effort from the Orange, who will get a much needed victory against a quality opponent on Saturday.
Syracuse 68 Pitt 65