This game features far more intrigue than Pitt's home-court edge. Sure, the Panthers have been tough to beat at home and all, but with this squad, it can be done and sooner or later, SU needs to add another big road win in Big East play.
It will likely be a grueling, uphill battle tonight nevertheless. Syracuse and Pitt have a history of playing some intense, scrappy basketball games. And this Panthers squad is as tough as they come with DeJuan Blair and Sam Young anchoring the low post. Not only that, but this Panthers squad is angry following their first loss of the season, 69-63 on the road to Louisville.
Both Pitt and Syracuse are coming off Saturday games, leaving them little time for a respite in their brutal Big East schedules. SU has oftentimes struggled on short rest. While Jonny Flynn played nearly every minute last year, the rest of the squad still isn't quite used to the heavy workload they get with Coach Boeheim's predominantly seven-man rotation (and that's with Kris Joseph being used sparingly).
These quick turnarounds in between games have led to SU starting off slow, something they can't afford to do in this pivotal matchup. SU lost to Cleveland State on a two-day turnaround and also had slow starts against Kansas and Cornell (amongst others). Those games were also packed tightly into a short stretch of time. Meanwhile, SU has played some of its best basketball on long breaks. They rocked both Seton Hall and Long Beach State after more than a week's rest. This could help them this Sunday against Louisville, but it's something the Orange will need to overcome tonight, as it can ill afford a slow start in a road game against a top five team.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions
· How does the game get called foul-wise by the referees? Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson are physical specimens who've dominated the low post and managed to stay away from foul trouble so far for the most part. That will be key again tonight, as Pitt features one of the nation's premiere rebounders in DeJuan Blair. Blair got in foul trouble quickly in Pitt's loss Saturday night to Louisville. If SU can somehow replicate that feat, I'd like their chances of winning a lot more, but don't expect it to be easy. Pitt, a very physical team, has committed 59 fouls in three Big East road games, but just 31 in two home games. Thus, you can expect this to be a typical Big East game where the fouls flow like wine and the officiating will play a key role in the outcome.
· Paul Harris seems to be one SU player who excels in hostile environments on the road. He's averaging over twenty points and eight rebounds per game in Big East road games thus far. Meanwhile, Eric Devendorf will likely be the target of many derisive cheers and/or signs from Panthers fans tonight. If he can continue to elevate his game (averaging over fifteen per game off the bench since returning from suspension), Syracuse should be able to hang around.
· Watch out for both teams in terms of what they try to do defensively. SU is known for its 2-3 zone, while Pitt has concentrated on the man to man defense recently. However, it could be the secondary forms of defense that distinguish these teams tonight. SU has shown some improvement recently in the man, while Pitt has been relatively successful picking apart the zone defense in the past. On the other side, Jamie Dixon has used the zone defense to spark his team and snap them out of slumps…the most notable example being against Rutgers. Pitt trailed on the road by seven early in the second half, but rallied to take the game 78-72 after a switch to zone that shut down Mike Rosario and the rest of the Scarlet Knights.
· If revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, then SU has a chance to cold cock the Panthers with a vicious knockout punch tonight. The Orange was outscored 18-2 in the final three and a half minutes of last year's matchup in the Dome, allowing Pitt to escape with a victory. Now, SU has an opportunity for payback. A loss tonight for Pitt would be a second straight in Big East play. Jamie Dixon's squad would fall back amongst the Big East pack and the going doesn't get much easier from here as Pitt has a tough stretch to close out the month.
· Can SU wreak some havoc defensively once again? It won't have thirty thousand-plus fans screaming for them this time, like it did Saturday against the Irish. SU forced turnovers at will as it sped the game up against Notre Dame, previously the nation's best team in assist-to-turnover margin. That will be key again tonight, as Jonny Flynn is opposed by Levance Fields. Fields boasts an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 4:1, which ranks him in the top echelon of Division I, along with Michigan State's Kalin Lucas. One Pitt player to keep an eye will be Jermaine Dixon. Juan's younger brother had nine turnovers in the month of November, but just ten since then. He has also improved greatly on the offensive end. He has posted double digits in four of his past six games, after reaching that plateau just three times in the team's first eleven contests.
· SU will need a fast start, good defense on the three pointers and a good night from both the floor and the charity stripe to win. The ‘Cuse will have to play methodical basketball, yet speed the game up….a ‘controlled frenzy', if you will. But the key will likely be on the boards. SU seems to rebound a bit better in the man defense, which we should see mixed in tonight. If the ‘Cuse can get repeat performances from Saturday out of its big men on the boards, then this game will be a doozy. However, Pitt is one of the nation's top rebounding teams. In an earlier clash with Georgetown this year, the Panthers outrebounded the Hoyas 43-17. In fact, Mr. Blair had just as many rebounds as the entire G-Town squad.
Prediction: #4 Pittsburgh 73, #8 Syracuse 71