Another team fell from the ranks of the unbeaten on Monday night when Syracuse traveled to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers and came out on the losing end of a 74-66 final. The first half played out rather unexpectedly, as Pitt opened the game with a 19-0 run before Syracuse finally got their first basket, a three-pointer by Scoop Jardine, at the 12:00 mark. If that wasn’t odd enough, Syracuse then went on to score an additional 14 unanswered points to bring the score to 19-17, and kept it close in reaching halftime only down by four. The second half was a much more back-and-forth affair, although Pitt generally controlled the game throughout on their way to the big victory. The win will move Pitt up to the #3 spot in the country, assuming Ohio State and Kansas both remain unbeaten this week and the Panthers handle DePaul on Saturday. Syracuse likely won’t drop too far despite the loss.
Both Syracuse and Pitt are solid teams who are rightfully positioned among the top 10 in the country. Pitt has really had Syracuse’s number in recent years, and once again got to play the role of spoiler in ending the Orange’s undefeated run. Coming into the game Pitt had the more impressive victories on the season, with wins over Texas, Connecticut, and Georgetown, among other quality opponents. Syracuse’s most significant win had come against Notre Dame on New Year’s Day, and their only away games (discounting games at neutral locations) prior to visiting Pittsburgh had come against Seton Hall and St. John’s. One could take the perspective that the Orange had not truly been tested yet, especially in light of Michigan State’s continued troubles after Syracuse defeated them in early December in an at-that-time “key matchup.”
Pitt could not boast an undefeated record as they got ready to host the Orange, having lost to Tennessee in the course of the Volunteer “spike” on the proverbial EKG chart of the national rankings. But this win could propel the Panthers forward on a highly successful romp through the Big East conference schedule, even considering the number of tough teams in the conference this season. Pitt features a starting lineup of three seniors and two juniors, and they are a disciplined, tough-minded team. During the 19-0 run to start the game on Monday, there was no show-boating, no making faces at the camera, and no loss of focus. Syracuse effectively closed the gap, but it didn’t come through errors on the part of the Panthers. They stuck to their strategy and it paid off in the end.
Pitt’s strategy on the offensive end was all about moving the ball through the signature Syracuse zone defense. Quick passes in and out of the middle of the zone repeatedly opened up good shots for the Panthers. To begin the comparisons to the Buckeyes here, you could say that Pitt’s passing looked like some of those moments we’ve seen this season when Ohio State really moves the ball, with no player having it for more than a split second on the way to a good jump shot or backdoor layup. Pitt’s proficiency at moving the ball is reflected in the fact that they currently lead the nation in assists per game.
Overall the Panthers are similar to Ohio State in some other ways as well. Multiple players can shoot and score, they have strong senior leadership (obviously), they run the break effectively, and they lock you down on defense. A significant difference between the Panthers and the Buckeyes is that Pitt relies more heavily on its guards to score, with Ashton Gibbs being the most potent threat from outside. Senior forward Gary McGhee is a bruiser on the inside, but he’s definitely not going to light up the scoreboard. However, this isn’t to say that Pitt is soft on the inside. In addition to their impressive assist numbers, they rank second in the country in rebounds per game.
Syracuse is a bit harder to figure out. To be fair to the Orange, they were without leading scorer Kris Joseph on Monday, as Joseph was out due to a concussion suffered earlier against Cincinnati. Perhaps this contributed to the team’s early struggles to find a basket, and Syracuse at full strength may have been able to overcome Pitt on the road. Scoop Jardine is a gunner from outside, jacking up three’s from outside in random fashion at times, but he’s a tough matchup at the point position with his quirky style. The Orange have a more notable inside game, with Rick Jackson logging double figures in both points and rebounds on a nightly basis. Jackson, who stands 6’9, is complemented by other players getting regular minutes who clock in at 6’7, 6’10, 6’8, and 7’0. Doing the math, that means that Coach Boeheim could see our bigs (Sullinger, Lauderdale, Thomas) and raise us a 6’10 guy and a 7-footer. Not too shabby.
Mirroring the impressions of UConn and Texas provided previously, I would say that Pitt is the more solid team overall, and has the better chance of making a deep run in the Tournament. However, Syracuse poses the more difficult matchups, and would be the team I’d be more unsure of seeing down the road. Basketball is a game of matchups (see Duke v. Florida State), and Syracuse can give you enough different looks that I think Ohio State would struggle to find a rhythm against them. Remember that Pitt’s upperclassmen have seen the Orange zone defense before, while Ohio State is relatively unacquainted with it.