The Syracuse Orange basketball team returns home with a bit of momentum to face the Pittsburgh Panthers for the first time this season. We asked Mike Wilson from SBNation’s Pitt Blog Cardiac Hill to give us some insight in advance of the game.
Pitt enters the game at 13-6, 4-4 in the ACC. How is the team doing in relation to pre-season expectations? Are fans happy with the Jeff Capel extension?
The general view around Pittsburgh is that Pitt is ahead of schedule in terms of its development under Jeff Capel. Fans thought it would be another rebuilding season with modest success and tough losses, but some of the new additions to the team, such as Justin Champagnie, have gotten up to speed much quicker than anticipated. That has led to more success than many expected. Because of that and the stark contrast in leadership between Capel and his predecessor, Pitt fans are excited about the extension and the prospect of keeping Capel around for the foreseeable future. However, some Pitt fans are fixated on the prospect of Capel leaving for Duke upon Coach K’s retirement and have been dubbed “Debbie Downers” by Capel, and probably rightfully so.
The five players who lead the Panthers in minutes played are all listed as guards but the team is only shooting 30% from 3 on the season so how do you think they try and attack the Syracuse zone?
As a team, Pitt has been inconsistent but not incapable in terms of three-point shooting. So I still expect that to be a point of emphasis on Saturday. Ryan Murphy has gone 8-for-15 from beyond the arc in Pitt’s last three games, so he should figure prominently in the game plan, much like Jared Wilson-Frame did last season. If other hot hands emerge, as Justin Champagnie and Trey McGowens have in the past North Carolina, Pitt will get them the ball. But the best approach might be to rely on Champagnie as an inside scoring option, with Murphy as a deep threat and Johnson as an alternate scoring option.
Xavier Johnson’s shooting numbers are on par with what he did last season, but points per game are down 3.5 points this year. Is this because teams are focused on shutting him down or is he looking to get others involved more often?
It seems like a combination of both. Johnson caught some teams off guard as a freshman last season, and that’s no longer happening with everyone now well aware of his talent. With that said, Pitt’s offense runs through him, and he has more reliable scorers to share the ball with. Last season, there was just Jared Wilson-Frame and Trey McGowens. This season, there’s Justin Champagnie, Trey McGowens, Ryan Murphy and Au’Diese Toney. So it seems like Pitt’s most common game plan is to get them all involved, sometimes at the expense of Johnson’s own stats.
When Syracuse has the ball, what kind of defense should we expect to see? Which player do you think will draw the challenge of slowing down the ACC’s leading scorer Elijah Hughes?
Pitt has looked most comfortable in a man-to-man defense this season and has not been well served by its occasional use of the zone defense. Considering Syracuse is shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range this season, it would be surprising if Pitt went with anything other than its man-to-man defense, which bailed the team out of an ill-fated dalliance with the zone against Boston College on Wednesday. Au’Diese Toney is the team’s most reliable defender, and he has had some success against Louisville’s Jordan Nwora and other ACC stars, so he will likely be covering Elijah Hughes on Saturday.
Is there a Syracuse player other than Hughes that you are worried about heading into the game?
Three-point shooters have fared well against Pitt lately, so Buddy Boeheim could pose a threat. Pitt just allowed Boston College, which ranks 320th in the nation in three-point shooting, to make 41.7 percent of its threes on Wednesday, so a 58th-ranked Syracuse team is worrisome. Boeheim is coming off a rare 0-for-5 three-point performance against Notre Dame, but he has bounced back from down games well this season and has shot 39.6 percent from distance overall. In three games against Pitt last season, he went 9-for-16. So again, that should worry Pitt.
What’s your prediction for the game?
Pitt will likely give Syracuse a fight but get stifled by the zone and fall short. That is, unless the stars align and Ryan Murphy has a big game and Terrell Brown or Justin Champagnie emerges as an effective weapon against the zone. But barring such an occurrence, my prediction is a win for Syracuse by a score of 71-64.
Thanks again to Mike for this information on the Panthers. Be sure to check out Cardiac Hill for more on Pitt Athletics.