Tim Benz: Can Pitt coach Jeff Capel rediscover Jamie Dixon’s magic against Syracuse?
The chants of “We Want Duke” could be heard Monday throughout Petersen Events Center. A celebratory Pitt basketball crowd was basking in the glow of its rejuvenated program upsetting 11th-ranked Florida State.
Yup. A game against mighty Duke on Tuesday night. That’s the next home tilt for new Panthers head coach Jeff Capel.
However, before Duke’s former assistant gets Duke, his players have to visit the team that just beat Duke on Duke’s floor while Duke’s best player was putting up 35 points and 10 rebounds.
A trip Saturday to the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse is too important to be viewed as a potential “stepping-stone” game. But given that the home contest against Du … uh, you know who … is an even bigger deal than normal this year with Capel’s presence on Pitt’s bench, you could understand why that may be a concern.
“It’s obviously hard not to look ahead against Duke,” Panthers sophomore Terrell Brown said. “But since what happened during the Syracuse-Duke game, this makes the game so much more important to us. We have to get this one. We’re more dialed in on this game.”
Prior to their upset of the Blue Devils, the Orange didn’t appear to be a vintage version of themselves. They entered that contest at 11-5, suffering home losses to Georgia Tech, Buffalo and Old Dominion by an average of 10.6 points.
But in Syracuse’s 95-91 overtime victory over the top-ranked Blue Devils, they looked more like last year’s Sweet 16 squad, which has returned five starters and two other significant contributors from the bench.
“As my dad would always say, we have enough to say grace over with Syracuse,” Capel said in regard to not looking too far ahead to the looming tilt against his former employer.
Historically, the Panthers had better results than most opponents against Jim Boeheim’s renowned 2-3 zone defense. Jamie Dixon went 15-6 vs. the Orange during his time in Oakland.
But anyone who experienced that success is gone from the current Panthers lineup. Any of the remaining holdovers from Kevin Stallings’ teams were losers against Syracuse twice last year.
During those two games, Pitt scored just 45 and 55 points. They shot an ugly 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in those games.
“Their zone is different,” Capel said on his 93.7 FM show Thursday. “When you’ve never played against it, you can’t simulate it. We certainly don’t have the size. This is unlike anything we’ve seen. We have to attack it without shooting threes. Duke took 43 of 80 shots that were threes. That’s probably too many.”
Syracuse’s size, particularly at the top of the zone, is a problem. Every guard that plays up high is between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6. Because of their size and wingspan, Pitt’s Khameron Davis says opposing perimeter players often rely on excessive 3-point jump shots because they fear the passing lanes don’t exist.
“A lot of times in the zone, the weakness can be attacking the inside even if it doesn’t look like it’s there,” Davis explained.
“Their length makes gaps look smaller than what they really are. But if we can get the ball in the mid-post, we can attack and force them to play our fast guards in the middle,” he continued. “That can lead to some easy layups.”
Brown said Pitt’s scout team defense has been practicing with long, padded sticks in their hands, hoping to replicate the wingspan of the Syracuse players.
Syracuse’s defense is No. 21 in the country in points allowed 63.4. Yet, Duke just put up 91 points against the Orange on Monday. In Syracuse’s recent loss against Georgia Tech, the 10-7 Yellow Jackets shot 59 percent from the floor.
On offense, the Orange are a dismal 42.2 percent from the field. That ranks 280th in the country.
Perhaps the greatest effectiveness of the zone is that, when it creates turnovers up high and forces long three-point misses, it allows Syracuse to get out in transition, where their athletes can pick up the pace. That effect was on display against Duke, when 12 turnovers and 34 missed three pointers by the Blue Devils helped Syracuse generate 95 points en route to victory.
“(Capel) tells us Syracuse likes to run and gets a lot of their points on the fast break,” Davis said. “So, if we stop them from getting into their fast break and make them run half-court sets, we’ll have a better chance of minimizing their points.”
A lot of the good Capel has done so far has been predicated upon erasing the negatives of the Stallings years. Dipping back into the Dixon’s bag of tricks against Syracuse — and beating that 2-3 zone — will help advance that trend.
That will also continue to build momentum towards the Tuesday game against Du … um, the team their next opponent just beat.