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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. Pittsburgh preview: Five things to watch

Can the Orange pick up a 5th straight ACC win against the Panthers?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 02 Syracuse at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange picked up their fourth straight ACC victory on Wednesday against Notre Dame, and now turn their sights to Pittsburgh on Saturday in the Dome.

Before going any further, I have to ask: were any of your hearts racing as fast as mine at the end of Wednesday’s game? I think I took a year off my life just from all that anxiety. Hopefully it won’t be close against Pitt, my heart could use the break.

After 40 minutes of fast-paced, adrenaline-filled basketball against Notre Dame, the Orange will attempt something we haven’t been able to accomplish since the 2016-17 season: win five consecutive ACC games.

The soon-to-be victim (hopefully) are the Pittsburgh Panthers, a team is 13-6, but have losses to Nicholls, Miami, and Wake Forest. To put it bluntly, they probably aren’t as good as their record would indicate.

So let’s take a look at the five keys to the game and what to watch for on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Pittsburgh vs Syracuse Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

1. Efficient offense

The Pittsburgh Panthers rank 23rd in points allowed this year, giving up a stingy 61.7 per game. They have yet to give up 80 points in a single game this season.

Keep in mind, the best offensive team they’ve played this year is that Nicholls team they lost to in November, so they haven’t exactly been holding down any world-beaters. But still, their defense can’t be overlooked.

They are a defense-first team, and if Syracuse basketball wants to come away with a win, they are going to need to be efficient on offense. They did a great job for most of the game against Notre Dame, taking quality shots and getting out in transition.

Towards the end of the game the offense stagnated, a point I’ll get into in the next section, but in general the offense flowed well and the balance between passing and isolation worked to perfection against an ill-prepared Notre Dame defense.

We need to see more of that combo against the Panthers. It all starts with our guards’ (and Elijah Hughes’) ability to get into the paint and create separation. Good things will follow.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

2. Fatigue down the stretch

I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the cold, hard reality is that when our guys are fatigued, our offense stagnates. It happened again against Notre Dame. With about seven minutes to play, our guys were absolutely gassed.

We were no longer able to beat them off the dribble, and it led to a series of bad shots, ugly offense, and a double digit lead evaporating over the course of only a couple minutes.

I’m going to once again beat the dead horse here and implore Jim Boeheim to give these guys a couple minutes of rest in the game. Elijah Hughes was a man possessed for the first 30 minutes, but with zero rest, the fatigue caught up with him and he missed six of his last eight shots.

If Syracuse wants to continue to be successful, they need to get the starters a few minutes of rest each game. Sooner or later, fatigued players are going to cost us games again, much like they contributed to our earlier losses against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

3. Go away Dr. Jekyll, we need Mr. Hyde

Is it me, or does the zone sometimes look like a Jekyll and Hyde act? For instance, the first ten minutes of the Notre Dame game. What was that defense? It certainly wasn’t the Syracuse zone.

Blown assignments. Wide open shot after wide open shot.

Zero communication.

Before you could blink, the Irish had dropped 30 points in just over nine minutes and had already built an 11 point lead. Jim Boeheim called timeout and regrouped the troups.

And what emerged out of that timeout was Mr. Hyde. The Orange zone had completely transformed before our very eyes. All of a sudden we were getting out on shooters. We were forcing bad shots. We were grabbing rebounds at a ridiculous pace, and we were running!

An 11 point deficit turned into a four point halftime lead. And the defense held in the second half. If you discount Notre Dame’s ridiculous eight point outburst in the last half minute, most of which was on the back of two prayer threes, the Orange held the Irish to just 44 points in 30 minutes. That’s damn good defense.

Go home Jekyll, you’re drunk. We want more Mr. Hyde.

4. Taco Time... again!

So far, the Orange have reached Taco Time in all but one of their wins. That was against Virginia. I think 70 points is the magic number against Pittsburgh. Whoever gets there wins the game.

So keep an eye on that scoreboard. The more of a slog this game becomes, the better chance Pitt has to steal one. I’d love to see the Orange hit Taco Time early in the second half and coast, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised for that reality if Elijah Hughes or Buddy Boeheim get hot.

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Syracuse Richard Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

5. Win the rebounding battle

Pittsburgh isn’t a great rebounding team, but neither is Syracuse. The good news is that we are coming off our best rebounding performance of the season against Notre Dame. Shockingly, the Orange out-rebounded John Mooney and the Irish 41-34.

I’d like to see that margin or more again on Saturday. Bourama Sidibe is looking much more confident on the interior. So is Quincy Guerrier. Marek Dolezaj has had 10 or more rebounds in five of his last seven games. The whole team is improving.

Dominating Pittsburgh will be another step in the right direction.