The Syracuse Orange return home after a momentous win against Duke on Monday that you’ve surely heard all about. Jim Boeheim’s team will now play its next two games at home, starting with the Pittsburgh Panthers today at 2 pm.
After going 0-18 in conference play a year ago, Jeff Capel has since taken over as head coach at Pittsburgh and already has the Panthers in contention for post-season play. With the matchup in mind we reached out Mike Wilson over at Cardiac Hill to preview today’s game and gather intel on the yinzers.
Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician: Pitt has surprised this season with a 12-5 record thus far. How has Jeff Capel been able to turn the page on the program?
Cardiac Hill: The turnaround started with recruiting. Bringing in Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney addressed some of Pitt’s biggest deficiencies from last season. Johnson has been a consistent offensive threat, as he as yet to score fewer than 10 points in a game. Meanwhile, McGowens has reached a new level since the start of ACC play, and Au’Diese Toney has been a great addition as the team’s top rebounder.
On top of that, some of the holdovers from last season have shown improvement. Jared Wilson-Frame had three straight 20-point games early this season, and Terrell Brown responded to Pitt’s recruitment of frontcourt talent by scoring more consistently and becoming one of the top three shot blockers in the ACC. That’s been a huge development that has helped Pitt compete against conference opponents.
So from afar, it may look like the influx of talent is the lone cause of Pitt’s improvement, and it’s certainly a major one. But the fact that last year’s players are also improving suggests that everyone on this team is benefiting from a higher quality of coaching, greater expectations and a more competitive environment.
TNIAAM: With a few good wins to start ACC play over Louisville and Florida State, Pitt is just barely outside of the NCAA Tournament picture. Can this team make that jump with a tough schedule remaining?
CH: It’s hard to tell at this point. At 2-2, Pitt could go either way. And with young players still learning how to capitalize on opportunities to take over games, it’s unlikely that they will put themselves in a position to become a lock for the tournament. With that said, they should be on the fringe for a few more weeks and could make a late push to get in.
TNIAAM: Pitt is a top-25 in defensive efficiency (KenPom). How has that been made possible?
CH: Pitt has gotten a lot of excellent defensive performances from players like Au’Diese Toney, who shut down Louisville’s Jordan Nwora, and Terrell Brown, who has become one of the best blockers in the conference. On top of that, Kham Davis, has always been a defensive specialist, and he has played a more prominent role on the team lately. And Trey McGowens is leading the ACC with 2.4 steals per game, so that is obviously helping the defensive effort.
Brown and McGowens have said that their improvement is the result of putting in extra work before and after practice, and Brown has worked with Pitt associate head coach Tim O’Toole specifically. Davis looks largely the same as last year, when he was the team’s top defender, and any improvements are likely the result of facing more talented offensive players in practice than he did under Kevin Stallings.
TNIAAM: Pitt brought in a talented freshman class. What do they bring to the table?
CH: Xavier Johnson brings some much-needed consistency to the Pitt offense. He is on a 17-game double-figure scoring streak, which is to say he has never been held to fewer than 10 points in his career. He was viewed as the unquestioned star of the team early this season, but Trey McGowens has had some immaculate performances since then.
Against Louisville, he set a program record for most points scored in a game by a freshman, with 33. He followed that up with another 30-point game against Florida State. So he appears to be a star in the making. And McGowens and Johnson are complemented by Au’Diese Toney. He hasn’t put on the offensive performances that the other two have, but he’s been a great rebounder and defender.
TNIAAM: Anything else Syracuse fans should know about the Panthers?
CH: Yes. Last time Pitt and Syracuse met, Terrell Brown had six blocks and two points against the Orange, and this year, he has taken his defensive game to a new level and gained confidence on offense.
Brown has been on a tear defensively since just before the start of ACC play, as he has blocked at least four shots in each of Pitt’s last five games. On top of that, he has scored in double figures in four of his last seven games and appears poised to come up big again in this game, based on how he could be used against the zone.
I bring this up because he has been the missing link in some of Pitt’s early losses this year and a factor that helped put them over the top in the team’s upset of Louisville. So with Pitt likely to lean on Brown in this matchup and his game having undergone positive changes, he could be the difference in a close one.
TNIAAM: Neither of these teams play at a fast pace. How can we expect Saturday’s game to play out?
CH: The term “crabs in a bucket” comes to mind when envisioning how this game might play out, given how these two defenses continually dragged each other down last season. However, Pitt has only been held under 60 points once, and Syracuse has only been held under 60 twice. So this should be a departure from the rock fights that took place in 2018.
It seems likely that the Syracuse defense will present Pitt with some problems, especially because of its size advantage and the issues the zone defense can cause. As a result, the Panthers will likely turn the ball over more often than usual and have more unproductive trips down the floor than they did in their recent upsets.
However, if the Panthers can crack the Orange defense, the floodgates could open if Trey McGowens or Xavier Johnson are having a good night. Pitt has also been tough defensively this season and should be able to prevent the Syracuse offense from taking full advantage of the miscues its defense brings about.
Factoring all that in, it wouldn’t be surprising to see these two teams put up scores in the 60s or 70s this time around.
TNIAAM: Who wins, what’s the final score and why?
While the Panthers have pulled off two surprising upsets at home, they have yet to notch their first true road win. That paired with facing a different defense than they’re used to, which Jeff Capel expressed concerns about, may well result in a loss.
This one should be close, and if the Panthers can figure out a way around the Orange defense, there’s a good chance they can outscore them. But my pick is the Orange by a score of 71-70 in a game not unlike the Syracuse-Georgetown or Pitt-Iowa matchups earlier this season.
Big thank you to Mike for taking the time here to answer our questions. What do you guys think? Will Syracuse improve to 4-1 in conference play or fall at home after a big win?
Also, for those in attendance today please stay warm and drive carefully. I hope you visited the closest Wegman’s and will hibernate these next few days in the snow storm.