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‚Äôs number this season would be an understatement.¬† In the two teams‚Äô 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôs debacle against Florida State, it wouldn‚Äôt be surprising if the Orange needed this win to qualify for the tournament.¬† With a loss, it‚Äôs possible that SU could squeak into one of the play-in games, but losing five of the last six games certainly isn‚Äôt 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‚Äôs familiarity with the zone from the Big East years certainly doesn‚Äôt hurt, either. The Orange‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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.