Pitt hopes to continue success against Syracuse to keep NCAA dream alive
The good news is Pitt faces Syracuse in the second round of the ACC Tournament. The bad news is the Panthers haven't lost to Syracuse in two years.
Pitt (20-10) is 2-0 against Syracuse (19-12) this season entering the teams' noon tipoff Wednesday at Verizon Center in Washington. The Panthers have won four in a row against the Orange.
“We beat them two times this year,” senior guard James Robinson said. “To beat a team three times in one season is going to be hard.”
“We don't have time to think, ‘It's Syracuse,' ” junior forward Sheldon Jeter said. “I'm sure some of their players are really going to be anxious to play us.”
The Pitt-Syracuse winner faces top seed North Carolina on Thursday. In reality, the Panthers and Orange are playing for their seasons, with the winner likely bound for the NCAA Tournament and the loser likely NIT-bound.
“We have to think at this point we're one and done,” Jeter said.
Expect the Panthers to lean on their successful history against Syracuse but not so much that they take it for granted.
Following back-to-back defeats at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to end the regular season, the Panthers need a confidence boost.
“I'd rather have been 2-0 down the stretch,” coach Jamie Dixon said.
In both wins against Syracuse this season, the Panthers outrebounded the Orange by 38, including 19 on the offensive glass resulting in 34 second-chance points.
Led by junior Jamel Artis, who averaged 19.5 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in those victories, the Panthers broke open close games and pulled away late.
“We've had their number the past two years,” Jeter said. “Chances are Jamel will probably have a big role in this game.”
There's something about facing Syracuse's 2-3 zone that brings out the best in the Panthers. Against Syracuse, the Panthers are less likely to settle for jump shots. They understand how to break down the zone and work the ball inside.
That inside-out strategy is important for a team shooting just 3 of 32 from 3-point range (9.4 percent) during the past two games.
“It'll be different types of shots with the zone, different looks. Getting that first one, getting a layup, makes that next jump shot look a lot easier,” Dixon said.
In the Panthers' 66-52 win at Syracuse on Feb. 20, “We got some layups,” Dixon said. “Then we got some shots to fall after that.”
Pitt shot 57.1 percent in the second half against Syracuse last month. In the teams' first meeting in December, the Panthers shot 48.1 percent in the second half of a 72-61 victory.
The Panthers outscored Syracuse by a total of 23 points in the second half of both games.
“We beat Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech (earlier this year), and then we lost to them,” Jeter said. “This game is a little different. The intensity level always picks up for Syracuse.”
“We know they're going to be ready,” Robinson said, “but so are we.”