It’s here. Big Monday.
I think I speak for a few Pitt fans when I say I’ve been looking forward to this game since the final buzzer of the Connecticut game. The Syracuse Orange have been perfect so far, rolling to 18-0 on the season. That’s the best start in Syracuse basketball history. Syracuse has been the team Pitt has been compared to all season. When asked, “Who is the best team in the Big East?”, most experts would say it’s a toss up between the two. Some would pick Pitt, a few more might pick the Orange. After Monday, that won’t be the case. Pitt will show the country that it’s a true Final Four contender this year. The Pete is our house. 144-11. 8-0 against top 5 teams. “Where top-5 teams come to die”. No current Syracuse player has beaten Pitt, let alone beat Pitt at the Zoo.
Pitt has been playing some of its best basketball of late. Bob Knight called the first half of Pitt’s game against Georgetown “the best half of basketball I’ve seen by any team all year”. Even when its offense has not be gelling as it wasn’t against Seton Hall, Pitt still manages to scrap for rebounds and second chance opportunities to still win by 21.
For stat analysis, Pitt is top 20 in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, and field goal percentage. They’re top 5 in rebounding and assists, being the top team for the latter. This might be one of the most balanced teams Pitt has ever had. Against Seton Hall, only two players scored in double figures, but 9 total players scored at least 5 and 8 had at least 4 rebounds. Syracuse is top 20 in assists per game and field goal percentage. The Orange are led by 6’7 junior forward Kris Joseph at 14.6 pts/game. Unfortunately, Joseph slammed his head falling back onto the floor against Cincinatti on Satuday and will not play against Pitt on Monday. While I would like to beat the Orange at “full strength”, injuries and staying healthy are part of the game. You know what is also part of the game? Being physical and playing aggressive. Welcome back to the Zoo, Scoop. (p.s. how can anyone from the team that had Eric Devendorf on it call another team dirty?)
While Jardine is Orange’s 2nd leading scorer, I think Rick Jackson will be a bigger key to the game. He averages a double-double per game with 13.2 pts/game and 11.7 rebs/game. What really stands out to me is he plays almost 34 minutes a game. For how big a guy he is, that’s impressive. Pitt’s McGhee averages about 20, splitting most of his time with Dante Taylor. Put McGhee and Taylor together though? 35.7 minutes per game, 14 pts/game, and 12 .6 rebounds/game. Together they put together a solid performance at the center position. Taylor will have to step it up on the defensive end to handle Jackson though.
This may be the first team Pitt has faced this year that has as much depth as the Panthers. They have a talented group of players, followed by a good but young group off the bench. ‘Cuse fans will point to the “development” of freshman Fab Melo during the Cincinnati game as another positive sign for depth. I’ve never seen a kid get such pre-season hype, and simply not deliver as much as this kid has. Another aspect of this game that is synonomous with Syracuse is the 2-3 zone. It brings about sheer offensive ineptitude for just about every opposing team the Orange face, except Pitt. Perhaps it’s Pitt’s patience when running its offense, or how they distribute the ball around the court getting the ball to the right spots, but Pitt has not been fazed by the zone under Jamie Dixon. They just get it. The Orange are the Big East’s best defensive team in terms of opposing field goal percentage. They force their opponents to take bad and/or contested shots. Their best advantage, however, may fall flat against the Panther’s patient offensives schemes.
Syracuse hasn’t lost yet this year. This is an advantage to Pitt the way I see it. Pitt was dealt its first loss by a hot Tennessee team, and does not have that burden of remaining perfect. For Syracuse, they haven’t been down and been challenged this year. Coming to the Pete with the Oakland Zoo is a terrible place for Syracuse to figure out if they can survive a game like that.
For this game, the Zoo should be at its absolute best. The building will be packed. This game is prime time for the country to see how Pitt basketball is played, and to see the Zoo. The Panthers will be wearing the white versions of their Nike Hyper Elite uniforms. Every possession matters in this game, and the Zoo should treat it as such. As I said, the Pete is our house, and we should not let them walk away being the first Top 5 team to beat us at home. Be loud, be obnoxious, be animals, even if you’re not in the Zoo. The fans in the rest of the stadium are just as important to this team. Nobody’s perfect, and Syracuse should be reminded of that on Monday…just like last year