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Syracuse, Pitt aim to redefine ‘rivalry’ after Jamie Dixon’s departure

Ugh, these guys...

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Why is every Pitt loss exactly the same?” we asked in frustration last March. It wasn’t hyperbole, either. Under Jamie Dixon, the Pittsburgh Panthers made a habit of beating the Syracuse Orange in similar fashion twice a year, much to our chagrin. We weren’t RIVALS, per se (though maybe we are/were more so than is the case for football). But the twice-a-year matchup does create a sense of anxiousness and dread for Orange fans nonetheless.

Dixon, one of the best coaches around at “gaming” Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, headed off to TCU this offseason. We were not sad to see him go at all. Despite an all-time 65-44 advantage over Pitt, Syracuse was 7-15 against the Dixon-led Panthers, including two separate five-game losing streaks (they’re in one now, too).

Those Pitt teams did two things really well against the Orange: Out-muscle them in the paint and ride hot perimeter shooting to spread the SU defense thin. Many of the games were ugly, as the Panthers were largely a defense-first team a la the old Big East. But those individual shooting performances will haunt us for as long as these two teams play one another each year.

Without Dixon, however, things do look a bit different. New coach Kevin Stallings, imported from Vanderbilt, has a group this year that likes to run a bit (82.3 points per game), but also give up a decent amount of points themselves (75.8 allowed per game). Team-wide there’s quite a bit of three-point prowess — four different players are shooting 40 percent or better from three. They’re a decent rebounding team (65th in the country), though steals and blocks are far from their forte.

Syracuse, as you already know, is different too compared to many previous meetings, though we’ll see how much so when these two teams face off on Saturday. The doubts around the Orange going into the Miami game were largely based in their departures from the norm (lack of real defensive presence, deep rotations, lesser minutes for star players). The win abandoned all that, and re-established what we’ve long known about the program (save some savvy free throw shooting, which is still unique).

So will all of that change do much to alter this (little-r) rivalry as it redefines itself first sans Dixon, and in the next few years without Jim Boeheim as well?

Perhaps. As mentioned, both teams have spent the season departing from typical styles of play — grind-it-out, defensively-focused — that seemed to define what these games (and these teams) were in recent years. Syracuse’s current situation near the bottom of the ACC standings won’t help rescue any stakes for this one, and that’s a change too. Even with two middle-of-the-pack teams matching up in the ACC Tournament last year, there were stake for both Pitt and SU (despite the Orange loss not mattering much in the end).

Without all of that, it’ll be up to Syracuse to start to dictate where this thing goes. Again, we’re in the midst of a five-game losing streak, and it would be a six-gamer without a miraculous Tyler Ennis shot. Those games took on the tenor of old Big East rivals clash in a physical, heated game. These new ones could find themselves more high-scoring and finesse-driven, but until the Orange turn around their luck, the old narratives are likely to stick around, too.

On Saturday, they take the first step to redefine all of that. The key to Pitt’s mastery, Dixon, may be gone, but the players he used to challenge SU are largely still on the roster. Even if the scheme isn’t tailored to beat Syracuse anymore, the players still know how to.

Having this game (once again) while students are on break won’t help increase the atmosphere, but there’s still a chance for a new chapter to be written in a (little-r) rivalry that has always lacked a little something to be more. For Syracuse’s season, we know it’s imperative that they win this one. Let’s see if Pitt plays the devil once again.