The Syracuse Orange lost to the Pittsburgh Panthers, 72-71 in the second round of the ACC Tournament. The score probably doesn't matter, and neither does the location. Since Jamie Dixon took over the program, Pitt beating SU has been a far-too-common occurrence (14 out of last 20 tries). But it's not just THAT it happens every time. But HOW. A look at recent matchups between the two (John Swofford-mandated) "rivals":
Pitt 72, Syracuse 71
Syracuse jumps out to early lead, but Pitt pulls ahead by the half. After seemingly having the game in hand, the Panthers falter and allow the Orange back into it. However, Trevor Cooney misses a late three and Pitt advances. Despite averaging just over four points per game going into the contest, Cameron Johnson scores 24 points in the win.
Pitt 65, Syracuse 52
Syracuse jumps out to early lead, but Pitt pulls ahead by the half. The Orange lead once again after battling back mid-way through the second half, but ultimately fall when the game devolves into a rock fight with Pitt happily nailing threes as the unfortunate closer. Michael Young grabs 13 rebounds for the Panthers, nearly double his per-game season average.
Pitt 72, Syracuse 61
Syracuse struggles from the floor early, but clamps down on defense to get a tie game heading into halftime. The Orange grab a big lead, give it away, gain it back and then get bludgeoned to death down the stretch as Pitt wins on a 14-2 run. Chris Jones scores 10 in 26 minutes. His season average is just over six points.
Pitt 65, Syracuse 61
Syracuse starts slow but grabs a lead late in the first half, then Pitt retakes the advantage before halftime. Pitt seemingly puts the Orange away early in the second, then ends up having to fight off SU for the rest of the game. Syracuse stays within a possession or two for the final six minutes. Chris Jones hits five threes en route to 19 points (his season average was 8.5).
Pitt 83, Syracuse 77
Syracuse jumps out to a big lead, and despite the Panthers chipping away, they manage to keep it through the first half. Pitt beats the hell out of them in the second half, ultimately leaving with a close win they pulled from the jaws of defeat in the final few minutes of the game. Sheldon Jeter scores 18 despite a season average of just 4.7 points per game.
... you get the picture at this point, I'm sure.
Despite having similar talent levels for the last two years, and similar situations in-game, these contests all went the same way. I could extrapolate this out to include far more Pitt-Syracuse matchups, but that seems too sadistic -- even for me. Besides, you're already playing them through your head right now anyway. They all start and end the same. Occasionally, Tyler Ennis hits a miracle three to flip the script (that's also the last time we beat Pitt...). But largely, the Orange play well to start, hit a huge speed bump mid-game and then eventually succumb in the end.
The answer is simple. And at the same time, it isn't. Pitt, like most teams that have found success against Syracuse's zone, ride a hot shooter all the way home. You know the names in your head. We don't need to go there.
Pitt also tries to out-physical the Orange. This has been especially effective lately when SU is pretty light inside. Last year's team was largely Rakeem Christmas and that's it. This year's team has a definitive weakness on the interior. Having bigs that play well and crash the boards isn't a guaranteed recipe for success against Syracuse, though. A much more talented North Carolina squad has had its hands full twice this year against the Orange. The Heels have better big men than Pitt. Georgetown, for all their lauded center play way back in time, never used that to completely stifle the zone. It couldn't.
So what is it? Perhaps it's Jamie Dixon. And specifically, his strategy to attack the zone.
I'm not your basketball X's and O's guy. But I can understand how an effective play sets up, especially against a zone defense I've probably watched a thousand times or so. This explanation here, as crude as the setup may be, actually gets into some of what makes Pitt's offense work well against SU. The basics: Constantly have players either setting picks or cutting to the basket. The misdirection on the inside eventually either frees up a man on the perimeter (hi, random shooting performances!) or allows for a pass inside and direct to the basket.
"If a random website can draw up what Dixon does to Syracuse, why doesn't everyone do it?"
This is the most confounding part of it all -- to me, anyway. Perhaps it's the players Dixon specifically brings to Pitt, knowing that the Panthers will face the Orange twice every year. It's not like Pitt basketball is doing anything amazing most years outside of beating SU. So are the players and the system just built to beat Syracuse, and then see what happens against everyone else?
It's only far-fetched if you don't have quality players (which Pitt does) to beat the other teams on your schedule too. I don't claim to know exactly how and why Dixon recruits the athletes he does. But the zone familiarity is certainly a benefit for his team, and it's one that has been passed down through a couple different roster iterations now too.
No, Syracuse isn't doomed to lose to Pitt every time out there. It just feels like it right now. And for much of the last 10 years (from 2007 to now) when the Orange have only beaten the Panthers four times in 14 tries. They were 0-for-4 against them while I was on campus. Ugh...
They may not be RIVALS the same way Georgetown is. But with a bond forever held by realignment, Pitt could eventually -- through pure hatred and frustration -- find their way into our consciousness somehow. Perhaps this latest matchup finally earned them that upper-case "R" "Rivalry" distinction?