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ACC Basketball Preview: How Syracuse Matches Up With Pittsburgh

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This series previews Syracuse's conference opponents for the 2014-15 season, continuing with the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Don't worry, Jamie Dixon. Tyler Ennis is gone. Unfortunately, however, your best players are, too.

Pittsburgh was one of the toughest teams in the ACC in 2013-14, but the losses of Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna have left the Panthers with hopes of simply making the tournament rather than competing for an ACC title in 2014-15.

Don't forget to check out our other previews covering ClemsonBoston CollegeFlorida StateDukeLouisvilleVirginiaNorth CarolinaNotre Dame and NC State.

2013-14 Record: 26-10 (11-7)

Last Time We Saw Them: Tyler Ennis did Tyler Ennis things. The freshman hit his half-court buzzer-beater to take down the Panthers in Pittsburgh while keeping the Orange undefeated and giving the Panthers their fourth ACC loss.

Zanna dominated the paint with 16 points and 14 rebounds while Patterson added 14 points with three 3s. CJ Fair led the Orange with 14 points while Ennis scored 13, Trevor Cooney had 11 and Michael Gbinjie -- he was the only player to come off the bench -- scored 7.

Season Summary: The Panthers started off undefeated, too. But that lasted only 10 games. Pittsburgh cruised to 10 easy wins before falling to Cincinnati, 44-43, on a neutral court. The Panthers really struggled, though, when they got to ACC play. Pitt dropped both games to Syracuse and Virginia and added losses to Duke, NC State, Florida State and North Carolina.

The Panthers did take down No. 15 North Carolina late in the season and won a tournament game over Colorado but eventually lost to Florida to end the season. Patterson was named to the All-ACC Second Team while Zanna was an honorable mention.

Key Players:

James Robinson (7.6 PPG/4.1 APG/3.1 RPG): The junior point guard joins senior Cameron Wright in the backcourt and will be trusted to run an offense that lost its two best offensive weapons from last season. Last year, Robinson had a 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and he will need to put up similar results in 2014-15. The Panthers will look to establish new scorers and Robinson's ability to protect possessions by avoiding turnovers will be crucial.

Derrick Randall (2.1 PPG/0.0 APG/2.4 RPG): Randall enters this year in his second season at Pittsburgh. Randall transferred from Rutgers and mostly sat behind Zanna in 2013-14. He didn't show much in his limited minutes but is projected to start this season. Zanna was arguably the most important player on last year's team - from his rebounding and scoring to screening and rim protection. Zanna's production is gone and Randall will attempt to replace a lot of it. If Randall plays well, the Panthers will be a real threat. If he doesn't improve, Pitt could be in real trouble.

Personnel Changes: Pittsburgh lost its two best players: Patterson and Zanna. Patterson had almost unlimited range as a shooter and Zanna crushed teams while roaming the paint on offense and defense. Patterson was a player who could make bad shots late in the shot clock and Zanna was a key player who could screen and could pick-and-pop on offense and provided rim protection on defense.

Jamie Dixon has always been a good recruiter -- he had the No. 26 class in 2013 and No. 15 in 2012, according to ESPN -- but this year's class may not help much. According to ESPN's rankings, only one signee was ranked and early reports say Cameron Johnson, who didn't get much interest, if any, from other major schools, has been the only freshman to contribute during the preseason.

2014-15 Potential: A fairly weak non-conference schedule highlighted by Indiana, St. Bonaventure, Duquesne on a neutral court and several other mid-majors (Manhattan, Oakland, Florida Gulf Coast) should set the Panthers up for a great record going into conference play. The success likely stops there.

Pittsburgh gets Syracuse twice, Louisville twice and Duke, North Carolina and Virginia once each. The Panthers struggled against top talent last year and that likely continues this year. And while it has plenty of games against the ACC's lesser teams (two against Boston College, two against Florida State, one against Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Miami) it has enough games against the top end to keep it out of ACC title contention. The Panthers should be a tournament team but not much more.

Orange Matchup: The loss of Patterson and Zanna takes away Pittsburgh's 3-point threat as well as its main post player. Patterson had no problem shooting over the zone last year and Zanna was a tough matchup for Rakeem Christmas. The shooting of Patterson and Zanna's ability to hit the 15-foot jumper were ways to break the zone. With both gone, Pittsburgh will have to avoid the zone completely by getting in transition as much as possible. The Panthers have several athletic wings but could struggle in the half court early in the season. As long as Dixon is there, Pittsburgh will be one of the best-coached teams in the country. This year, though, it looks like the Panthers are just short on talent. Look for the Panthers to struggle against the zone and for Syracuse to likely win both matchups.