Syracuse and Pittsburgh each kick off ACC play tonight at 9 p.m., when the Orange and Panthers will meet at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.
Anson Whaley from Cardiac Hill — Pittsburgh's SB Nation blog — was kind enough to stop by TNIAAM for a Q&A ahead of tonight's showdown. Check it out below, and make sure to head over to Cardiac Hill for everything you need to know about the Panthers.
Admittedly, I haven't seen Pittsburgh play much this season, and the Panthers don't really have a signature win. But at 10-1 and with some dominant wins already on the resume, this seems like a pretty strong team. Entering ACC play, what's the overall feeling among the fanbase? Is Pittsburgh good enough to finish in the top five or six in the ACC?
The team is definitely better than last season — I think that's about all we know right now. You're absolutely correct in that there is no statement win from this team, which is a glaring hole on their resume. But they had a much easier time of things in the non-conference this season at least. Last year's team lost to Hawaii, nearly lost to St. Bonaventure, and went to overtime with Oakland. That was a really down season for Pitt and if nothing else, this year's squad is better than that one.
The overall feeling is everywhere. There was the expected angst after the Purdue loss since it was at home and (insert sarcasm) Pitt isn't ever supposed to lose at home. But I think the majority of people are cautiously optimistic. What that means in how much can be reasonably expected is anybody's guess. As a benchmark, I think anything short of an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a colossal disappointment and, personally, I want to see them win at least one game. I do think the team has the capability of getting out of the first weekend and finishing in the upper part of the ACC, but it's too early to tell right now if that's where they should be or where they can be.
Jamel Artis and Michael Young are two of the ACC's better offensive players. Last year, it was Artis who gave Syracuse the most trouble. Who should Orange fans be most concerned about heading into Wednesday?
Young has been the more consistent performer this year but Artis is still very dangerous. He's had some down games, but is capable of going off, too. He had 29 points in Pitt's most recent game against Western Carolina and is second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game. Both he and Young are the keys to the team, but point guard James Robinson is much improved on offense, too. He's shooting the ball better and is a much more viable threat since he's finally up over 40% from the field. Teams have to watch him a little more now and he's become more than a distributor. Those three collectively are the team's leaders and while others are capable of stepping up, they're the ones to watch the closest.
Pittsburgh's offense has been exceptional this season. Anything in particular that's made the Panthers so difficult to stop?
Perhaps the biggest change from prior years is that this is more of a three-point shooting team now, which seems incredibly weird to say for Pitt. They have fallen down the leaderboard recently, but I wrote an article earlier in December when Pitt was averaging 20 attempts per game — the most they'd had in the past decade. Again, they've slowed down quite a bit from that pace in what has to be a concerted effort from Jamie Dixon, but overall, they are much more capable of attacking teams from the perimeter. I don't know if that will change in ACC play or not, but so far, it's been a nice wrinkle from the typical Pitt offenses we've seen.
On a lesser, but still important note is that Pitt leads the nation in free throw shooting. Again, if you asked me what would be the most unrealistic things we'd see from a Pitt team, this would be one of them. But heading into this week, the Panthers are making 80% of their free throws, which leads the nation. So far, this hasn't been too much of a factor in the fast start since most games haven't been very close. But, assuming they can keep it up, it's something that could really help them in conference play when the games will be much tighter.
Other than that, I'd just point to the depth on the team. Pitt has several guys that are capable of big games that are more or less role players. A guy like Sheldon Jeter had 18 points and 22 points against Syracuse and North Carolina, respectively, last year, but is a reserve player. Chris Jones had at least 15 points six times last year (including twice against Syracuse) and is a reserve. Damon Wilson is a true freshman backing up James Robinson at the point. He got 20 minutes against Central Arkansas because the game was out of hand and had 20 points and one turnover off the bench. These are all guys that could probably be starting elsewhere. Pitt added several transfers to the roster in the offseason and two of them are starting (center Rafael Maia and guard Sterling Smith). There is more talent and depth here, which should help the team going forward.
The Pete is always one of the tougher places to play in the conference. With students on winter break, should Syracuse expect the environment on Wednesday to be any less hostile than usual?
Pitt has been pushing quite a bit for students to get to the game and if I had to guess, I think the turnout will be pretty good. Many students live in the Pittsburgh area and the school has also been offering some ticket deals to help fill the venue. I expect a loud crowd, especially given that a lot of people have been waiting for this game with a home schedule full of lightweights. The atmosphere may be slightly different, but I don't think it will be a significant change — especially with a nationally-televised night game.
Prediction time: Who wins tonight?
Syracuse won't be a pushover by any means and these look like two pretty evenly-matched teams. The Orange have better wins than the Panthers so nothing short of a complete blowout by either team would really surprise me here. I'll take Pitt in a 5-6 point win only because they're at home and I think they're a little deeper, but as I said earlier, there are so many unknowns about them right now. They had a very uninspiring game this past week against Western Carolina and coming off the holiday layover (this will be Pitt's first game in a full week), you just have no idea how they'll perform.