What happens when two longtime rivals are scheduled to meet in a conference tournament with a potential NCAA Tournament bid on the line? Madness. March Madness, that is.
To say that Pitt has had the Orange’s number this season would be an understatement. In the two teams’ first matchup this season at the Pete, the Panthers dominated the Orange on the glass en route to a 72-61 win. Syracuse was in the game the entire 40 minutes until it couldn’t match a late surge by Pitt. It should be noted that Mike Hopkins was coaching in this game. Three weeks ago, Pitt and Syracuse matched up again and the Panthers were once again the victors by a score of 66-52.
Wednesday at noon, the Orange will face their old Big East foe once again, this time from a neutral site in Washington DC. After yesterday’s debacle against Florida State, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Orange needed this win to qualify for the tournament. With a loss, it’s possible that SU could squeak into one of the play-in games, but losing five of the last six games certainly isn’t a way to prove to the committee that an at-large bid is deserved.
One reason that Pitt has played the Orange so well is great coaching. Time and time again, head coach Jamie Dixon has found ways to stifle the zone while getting great contributions from leaders Jamel Artis and James Robinson. Dixon’s familiarity with the zone from the Big East years certainly doesn’t hurt, either. The Orange’s 52 points in the latest matchup was its second-lowest scoring output on the year.
The Panthers, like SU, are in need of a good showing in the ACC Tournament. While the Orange dropped its final regular season game to the Seminoles, Pitt dropped its final contest to Georgia Tech, a team that SU beat earlier in the year. The Panthers are on a bit of a slide, too, losing six of its last ten conference games. Do both teams deserve to make the big dance? Probably, but the committee may view Wednesday’s matinee as a play-in for the tournament, with one team destined for a 9/10 seed and the other a top seed in the NIT.
SU last played a team three times in one season in 2012 when it faced Georgetown in the Big East Tournament semifinals. After the Hoyas embarrassed the Orange twice during the regular season, CJ Fair led SU to an overtime win that may have catapulted a final four run. Earlier in that tournament, the Orange knocked off Pitt behind a strong shooting performance from James Southerland.
If SU can topple Pittsburgh, the regular season champion Tar Heels will be waiting in the third round. A win against both Pitt and UNC would lock the Orange into the tournament.