The Syracuse Orange is absolutely rolling right now after winning five straight. Depsite winning against Boston College this week, the Pittsburgh Panthers are undoubtedly trending in the opposite direction. The two teams are set to meet for the second time this season, this time from the Pete in Pittsburgh.
To help preview the game we brought on our friend Jim Hammett (again!) from Cardiac Hill. You know the drill by now.
TNIAAM: I'd image being at the bottom of the ACC wasn't the expectation this year?
JH: Last place? Certainly not. Pitt is underachieving this year, and there is no denying that. Still, it's not like Pitt was expected to be a great team either. Pitt was picked 12th in the league in the preseason. This is a team with certain limitations and that was well known going into this season by the prognosticators and the fans alike.
Pitt was able to sneak into the tournament last season as a 10 seed, and lost in the first round to Wisconsin in ugly fashion. Since that loss, the school's all-time best coach Jamie Dixon left for TCU. They also lost four-year starting point guard James Robinson as well. Pitt made an uninspiring hire in Kevin Stallings to replace Dixon, and they did nothing to replenish the point guard position.
I still think many Pitt fans, myself including, thought that they would gut out 8 or 9 conference wins and make the tournament. Obviously that is not going to happen. I also think some may have underestimated how good the ACC is as well. There are some really good teams in this league.
TNIAAM: Why hasn't this team been able to win close games?
JH: Pitt is 2-9 in the ACC right now, and you can probably look at four or five games in which they could have won. It's been a bad season, but they are a basket here or there away from being closer to .500 in ACC play. I think part of their inability is the lack of a true point guard.
Jamel Artis is a fantastic player and can operate the offense fairly well to a degree. Still, he is the leading scorer in the ACC and is a natural small forward. Sometimes Pitt is totally out of rhythm on offense, and a point guard usually can call a set and get everyone aligned. Pitt looks lost on offense at times, especially in late game situations.
TNIAAM: What's changed since the first time we met?
JH: Honestly, not too much. Pitt losing to Syracuse started an eight game losing streak that they just broke out of on Wednesdaynight at Boston College. There have been some weird stretches during this losing streak. It seemed like Kevin Stallings lost the team for a stretch. Pitt was blown out of the water by Louisville by 55 points, and it looked like the effort was rather lackluster in that game.
Since the embarrassing loss to Louisville, Pitt has cleaned it up a bit and they are playing more competitive basketball. The Panthers had a near impossible task last week of going to North Carolina and Duke in back to back games, and they did more than held their own. Pitt lost to North Carolina by two and Duke by eight, and they were in both games until the very end. They also finally won a game as well. At the very least, they are playing better basketball recently.
TNIAAM: Do you think anything changes this time around?
JH: It's possible. This Pitt team still has a lot of players that have had success against Syracuse in their careers. The first meeting seemed to be a simple explanation that the Orange shot very well, and Pitt started ice cold. Pitt was able to make the score look respectable, but there was no doubt Syracuse dominated.
Still, Pitt beat the Orange three times last season. Jamel Artis, Cameron Johnson, Sheldon Jeter, and Chris Jones have all had big games against Syracuse in their careers. Pitt's lack of a point guard is masked pretty well facing the 2-3 zone. Also, I would expect the Oakland Zoo to be rocking, and that can help close the gap from the first meeting.
TNIAAM: O/U 4 threes from Cam Johnson this game?
JH: Johnson is just so streaky and it's hard to predict how he will play on a game to games basis. He made six 3's against North Carolina in Pitt's near upset of the Tar Heels, but only made one the other night against Boston College. I will say over because he seems to be able to find shots in the zone, and is not afraid to take NBA range 3's against the 2-3.
TNIAAM: Who has more personality? Jim Boeheim or Kevin Stallings?
JH: Kevin Stallings is not the most popular guy in town right now, and that's for good reason. I think the guy is at least a decent coach, and deserves a chance to succeed here. Others want him fired immediately. The sensible bet is that he will be Pitt's coach for the foreseeable future.
I actually like the guy as a person. He is so brutally honest, and he does not sugar coat anything. He's also very smart and calculated, and says exactly what is on his mind to the media. Having come from 13 years of Dixon, he was positive to a fault for the most part. So it's a nice change of pace.
I would say a push between Boeheim and Stallings. They both have that sarcastic, dry-humor types of personality.
TNIAAM: What does Stallings do for fun?
JH: His son plays minor league baseball, coincidentally enough, for the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization. So I think he watches baseball, other than that is anyone's guess.
TNIAAM: Pitt wins if...
JH: It sounds silly, but Pitt will win if they are hitting their shots. Pitt takes a lot of jump shots, and sometimes they are hot and beat teams like Virginia, and other times they get blown out by Miami. It's hard to predict which teams shows up on a given night. Mike Young and Jamel Artis are the two leading scorers in the conference, and they can carry Pitt to a win on their own if they are both playing well. They will need a third guy to step up, and ideally that is Cameron Johnson.
TNIAAM: Syracuse wins if...
JH: Syracuse wins if they keep playing how they have been playing. The Orange have won five straight games. They have gone from an NIT-bound team to fourth place in the ACC almost instantly. Neither team is deep, but Syracuse's seven man rotation is better than Pitt's current rotation. Andrew White III is playing out of his mind lately, and I'm not sure Pitt let alone anyone can slow him down. He should have a big game.
TNIAAM: Ultimate prediction time. Who wins and why?
JH: Both teams are playing "well" relatively speaking. Pitt's better play of late has resulted in two close losses and a win. While Syracuse has actually won five games in a row. I have to pick Syracuse though. They are on the bubble right now and must play Louisville twice and Duke down the stretch. Boeheim knows this one right here is very winnable, and will likely get the job done. I think it will be more competitive than the first meeting however.
Orange 67 Panthers 59
Thanks again for joining us Jim! Cheers to a competitive game.
Orange nation: head on over to www.cardiachill.com to get further Pitt insight and be sure to share your thoughts on the comment section below.