The Pitt Panthers have always been weirdly-connected to the Orange and the schools’ transition to the ACC only strengthened this connection between the two. Jamie Dixon and Jim Boeheim have always been entrenched in a coaching battle, but for one night, it’s Mike Hopkins’ turn to lead the Orange through this very tough road game.
Coming off of a win against Texas Southern, SU looks to open conference play strong tonight versus a Pittsburgh team that is on the verge of being ranked in the AP Poll. Although the Panthers have only lost one game on the season, their strength of schedule is abysmal. Pitt’s only loss came against Purdue, who has hung around the top of the polls all season.
For Syracuse, this game is an absolute must-win for the confidence of the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. The Orange catches a little bit of a break too, as the Oakland Zoo, Pitt’s rowdy student section, is still away on holiday break.
For Pittsburgh, it’s been a one-man offensive show from Michael Young, but the Panthers have been getting increased production from Jamel Artis, as well. Young currently leads the team in both scoring (17.4 points per game) and rebounding (7.6). Artis, on the other hand, is averaging 15.5 points per game. Young, at 6-foot-9, is clearly the most important player for the Orange to defend because he’s averaging an efficient 60 percent from the floor and is the focal point of the offense down low.
However, unlike years past, Pittsburgh has become a three-point shooting gallery, much like the Orange. For what it’s worth, 11 players are averaging double-digit minutes per game in the rotation, and half of them shoot well from behind the arc. In today’s edition of “bench player who doesn’t usually score but will shoot the lights out against the zone,” look at Sterling Smith. Averaging 22 minutes and just 6.6 points per game, Smith is currently shooting almost 50 percent from three. He has become a three-point specialist for the Panthers.
Furthermore, SU will have to worry about Rafael Maia, a senior transfer, who has certainly come on as of late. Like Young, at 6-foot-9, he’s one of the biggest Panthers on the roster. Pitt, like Syracuse, doesn’t boast a true center, so these two teams are actually a lot more similar than one would think at first glance. It’ll be extremely important for Dajuan Coleman, Malachi Richardson, and Tyler Roberson to rebound strongly, because this is one of the few conference games that SU is not undersized.
For Syracuse to come away with a win, it will have to be active on defense and force a ton of steals, lock down on Michael Young down low, and finally shoot efficiently from three without wasting offensive possessions. Hopefully the increased competition will wake the shooters up, and the Orange can win a game at the Pete, just like Tyler Ennis did two seasons ago.