Just over a week ago, the Syracuse Orange hosted the Florida State Seminoles in a game that was touted by many as being a matchup of NCAA Tournament bubble teams with very similar resumes facing off in a crucial game for each's postseason hopes.
The winner would get a major step up on the loser, and the loser would begin to feel increased pressure to pick up another big win to bolster their resume.
Well, it's nine days later, and the Orange again find themselves in a very similar situation, this time against the Pittsburgh Panthers. If the NCAA Tournament started this weekend, the Orange and Panthers would both probably find themselves dancing, but with a few weeks to go before Selection Sunday, both still have work to do to ensure that they finish the season with tournament-worthy resumes.
Syracuse comes into this game with a record of 18-9 and 8-6 in conference, while Pitt has a record of 18-7 and 7-6 in ACC play. Syracuse's RPI is 39, while Pitt's is 41. Finally, Syracuse has a SOS of 46, and Pitt's SOS is 45. Syracuse has more wins against highly ranked teams (Duke, Notre Dame, Texas A&M), but Pitt owns the head-to-head victory over the Orange.
That December 30th clash, a game that Pitt won 72-61, is an important factor heading into Saturday's contest. Syracuse cannot afford to drop both games against Pitt this season. It would be difficult to put Syracuse ahead of Pitt on the tournament entry list if they are 0-2 against the Panthers in the regular season.
That simple fact alone is enough to describe the importance of Saturday's game, but let's take a look at what else we should have our eyes on in the Carrier Dome this Saturday:
The Jim Boeheim Factor
Jim Boeheim's nine-game suspension, SU's 4-5 record during that stretch, and how the NCAA selection committee will judge it all has been discussed ad nauseam at this point, but here's an interesting twist on that conversation. Pittsburgh is the only team that Syracuse played during Boeheim's suspension that they will get to play again during the regular season.
That means that we are going to have something tangible to actually compare between the Syracuse team coached by Mike Hopkins that faced Pitt, and the Syracuse team coached by Jim Boeheim that faced Pitt. Now, we do have to keep in mind that these games are being played almost two months apart. There are factors such as the fact that the freshmen are much more developed and playing much better at this point in the season to consider that make a difference.
However, for a selection committee that has indicated it may judge the Orange differently without Boeheim, here is a chance for SU to make a statement about how different this team truly is with Jim Boeheim at the helm.
The Rebounding Margin
When these two teams met on December 30th in Pittsburgh, the home team embarrassed the Orange on the glass to the tune of a 43-25 advantage. Pitt collected 19 offensive rebounds in the process. It was a game in which Syracuse got physically dominated in the 2nd half.
Since that game, Syracuse has done a nice job of improving their presence on the boards. If you take out the Pitt game, the Orange have a +1.1 rebounding margin in ACC games, which would be good for eighth in the conference. The problem is that Pitt sits tied for first with North Carolina in rebounding margin in ACC games at +4.8.
For Syracuse to win this game, they will need to be significantly more competitive with Pittsburgh in the rebounding department in the second go-around. I think it's time for a repeat of Tyler Roberson's performance in Cameron Indoor.
A Freshmen Bounce-Back?
For as well as Syracuse's three freshmen have played during ACC play this season, and they have all been tremendous, they struggled during Wednesday's loss at Louisville. Yes, Frank Howard contributed very nicely in the most action he's seen in a game all season, but SU's other two freshmen never got it going in the Yum!. Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon combined to shoot 4-16 from the field for the game, including 2-9 from three and 6-11 from the free throw line.
A huge key in the turnaround of the season for Syracuse has been the improved play and consistency of Richardson and Lydon. If Syracuse is to continue their positive run and beat Pitt, they will need the freshmen to bounce back with a strong shooting day against the Panthers.
Syracuse's games against Pittsburgh have always been known for being physical affairs, and Jamie Dixon's crew is always recognized for their all-out hustle and tenacity. During their first matchup this year, fouls became an issue for the Orange. DaJuan Coleman fouled out in only 17 minutes played, while Michael Gbinije and Tyler Lydon finished with four fouls each.
As an undersized team, Syracuse has done a commendable job of hanging tough with bigger teams during conference play. If they are to beat Pitt, they'll need to be physical and tough while staying out of foul trouble.
Syracuse has proven this year that their most effective method for scoring points comes from beyond the three-point arc, which could be really good news in this matchup. In conference games this season, Syracuse is third in the conference in three-point shooting percentage (.375). In contrast, Pittsburgh sits dead last in conference games at defending the three-point shot, surrendering 42 percent of the threes taken against them.
A good shooting night from three from the collective group of Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, and Tyler Lydon could spell victory for the Orange. After all, we don't have to worry about the (offensive) rebounding game as much if we're making over 40 percent of our threes.
"The Cuse is in the House"
20 years after their remarkable run to the NCAA championship game, the 1996 Syracuse men's basketball team will be back in the Loud House this Saturday to be honored during the Pitt game.
Lead by John Wallace, Lazarus Sims, Todd Burgan, and Otis Hill, the 1996 team was so exciting that they gave birth to a catch phrase (see above) and riveted all of Central New York.
Their achievements will be honored this Saturday, hopefully bringing a little good fortune to the current Orange boys.
Syracuse's game against Pittsburgh is at 2 pm on Saturday, and will be televised on ESPN 2. It is also set to be the largest college basketball crowd of the 2015-16 season.