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Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh Basketball Preview: Q&A With Cardiac Hill

No, seriously, there's a Syracuse basketball game tomorrow...

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, did you know that Syracuse still played basketball? Like, THIS season? Yeah, I know... weird. Based on recent news, I had no idea. But nonetheless, the Orange do indeed have a game this weekend, against the hated disliked Pittsburgh Panthers.

Below, Anson Whaley (who you should follow on Twitter) from SB Nation's Pitt blog Cardiac Hill, stops by to chat all about Panthers basketball. Join us below, and swing over there too if you'd like to see our answers.

So it seems neither of our seasons went as planned; how do Pitt fans feel about it?

As you would probably expect, many fans just aren't taking things that well. If you visit the site (particularly after a loss), you'll even see the extreme readers even calling to get rid of Jamie Dixon, despite the fact that he's made 11 NCAA Tournaments in his 12 seasons. I don't say that to discredit the fanbase and there are certainly many that understand that this is a young team that's had some difficult hurdles with missing players. But, this kind of a season was just a shock to a lot of people and it's not going all that well.

The key thing with this year's team is the youth. The Panthers play only two upperclassmen, James Robinson and Cameron Wright, with any great regularity. After that, the team is mostly made up of freshmen and sophomores. Pitt also lost its two best players from last year in NBA Draft pick Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, who is currently in the D-League and played some NBA summer ball.

Throw in an injury to Wright, which caused him to miss several weeks, and a year-long suspension to Sixth Man Durand Johnson, and you've got an incredible recipe for disaster. The biggest surprise has probably been the struggles against some weaker teams. Hawaii isn't a bad team this year, but losing that game wasn't expected. Most recently, there was the Virginia Tech loss. A miracle finish was needed to beat Oakland. Pitt also didn't look good in wins against Samford and St. Bonaventure. There have been several games where Pitt has looked flat out unimpressive.

I think what a lot of fans have come to realize is that when you're as young as Pitt and you've had some tough personnel breaks, nothing should really be taken for granted.

What's your best explanation for why Syracuse can't win at the Pete?

Obviously there was the exception last year, but to be honest, I don't think it's exclusive to Syracuse. Since like 2000 or 2001, Pitt had similar track records against other heavyweights back in the Big East like UConn and Georgetown. Someone that studied the ins and outs of the game strategies in those contests a little closer than me could probably rattle off reasons, but what I think it boils down to is that Pitt just beats almost everybody at home.

Now, that's kind of taken a hit the past few seasons and the home court advantage hasn't been as great as it was a decade or so ago. But overall, the team has mostly just played well against everyone at the Pete. The one thing the players have said over the years repeatedly is that the energy (particularly of the Zoo) is what a lot of them have fed off.

Might as well talk about this quick... sorry, we don't have many highlights lately.

Oh, come on - Aaron Donald's 2013 blocked extra point to win a game between two 6-6 teams cancels that out, right? Never mind ...

That game stung so much on so many different levels. It was a great chance for Pitt to get a statement win that eluded them in previous losses to Duke and Syracuse. Pitt had won 20 games by that point and was still trying to legitimize itself as a real contender. And to lose on that stage with that shot ... Well, I'd like to say that it was a unique situation, but Pitt fans are pretty accustomed to games like that.

Assess the Panthers' NCAA Tournament hopes right now: Any chance they make it? Is there a chance they make it?

Sure. Pitt has 15 wins right now, and with games still to go against Boston College, Wake Forest, and Florida State, there's still a chance to get to 20 - particularly after you throw in the ACC Tournament. But with some of those unimpressive performances that I mentioned earlier, Pitt probably needs at least one more big time win to even get in the discussion. The victory against Notre Dame helped, of course, and with Louisville, North Carolina, and Virginia still on the schedule, there are opportunities for another. Still, only one of those games is at home and a big obstacle for Pitt will present itself if a team like Clemson continues to win. Losing to the Tigers, a team that is 14-8 and hoping to get in as well, could be kind of a deal-breaker if things are close down the stretch.

And obviously, the two games against Syracuse, are going to be key. It goes without saying, but Pitt needs to grab at least one of those two games to get in. Right now, the odds are still against them. But they'll have opportunities to fight their way in.

Who should Syracuse be concerned about beyond Michael Young?

Right now, a guy that goes ahead of even Young is Jamel Artis. Artis has been playing the best ball of anyone on the team and has really picked things up after a slow start. He's just behind Young in scoring on the year, but is the team's leading scorer in the ACC season. Artis is averaging a little over 21 points in the past six games and has been on fire, shooting around 60%. He's also doing a little more on the glass, averaging seven boards in those games.

People shouldn't forget about Young, obviously, but Artis is the one that's been keeping the Panthers going lately. He's just been really asserting himself and taking a lot more shots than Young lately, too. Earlier this season, the offense seemed to flow through Young but as Pitt has run into better frontcourts in ACC play, he's been a little less of a focal point.

Which Orange player poses the greatest concern for Pitt?

It's gotta be Christmas. He's a legit NBA prospect and the clear star on that team. I'll say this, though - Pitt needs to keep an eye on Trevor Cooney. I know he's been off lately from beyond the arc, but Pitt has had some very real issues in their perimeter defense. That, more than anything, was what cost them against Virginia Tech. I know he's struggling a little, but if I'm Jamie Dixon, I want every long-range shot he's taking to be heavily contested. Wide open looks are exactly what guys need sometimes to get on track and Pitt has given up plenty of those this year. We know Christmas is a great player, but Cooney is one that should really scare fans as well.

Predictions: What happens on Saturday?

These two teams just seem pretty even to me, and I'd probably favor the home team in each matchup. While Artis has been playing well lately, though, Syracuse has a legit star and a lot of times, that can be the difference in close games. I'll cautiously take Pitt here, but let's be honest - it's because they've got the game at home. Pitt is also doing a blackout (black shirts), which should get fans into it a little. Plus, while Saturday at 4:00 p.m. doesn't provide the same atmosphere as a Big Monday game, it's better than the noon starts where students are often still dragging a little. Speaking to the team specifically, Pitt has really started get James Robinson going after an awful stretch of games. He played badly in the team's last win against Bryant in a weird non-con game in the middle of the season, but is definitely on the upswing. Getting more from him has really made this team significantly better.

It's obviously hard to tell how Syracuse will react to the postseason ban, but if anything, I'd probably say that favors Pitt a little. All of that considered, I'll take the Panthers by five.


Thanks again for taking the time out for these, Anson! Again, be sure to ffollow him on Twitter, and head over to Cardiac Hill to get all you need to know about Pitt.