After Saturday's loss at Marquette, the Panthers are losers of six straight. And now they get to travel to No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse. The Orange have been the most dominant team in the country so far, so that means Pitt has no shot - right?
Well, in a word, no. There's always a chance, albeit a small one, that Pitt pulls the upset. It probably won't happen, but it's important to keep in mind that Pitt has owned Syracuse as of late. The Panthers have beaten Syracuse eight out of the last nine times, including five straight wins at the Carrier Dome. The only loss in that span came in the finals of the 2006 Big East Tournament. And even more ironically, in the past two years, Syracuse has been undefeated heading into their game against Pitt. Both times, the Panthers came out with a victory. Jamie Dixon has been a master at carving up Syracuse's patented 2-3 zone defense. So, there's history on Pitt's side. But that's about where the positives end at this point.
With the way the Panthers played in demoralizing losses to Wagner, DePaul, and Rutgers, despite the loss on Saturday, they played much better the last time out. The game against Marquette was only a moral victory, but this team really needed it. Playing reasonably well against the Golden Eagles on the road had to be a boost to their confidence
So, how can Pitt do the unthinkable and knock off the Orange?Obviously, continue where the team left off in Milwaukee (outside of the 6:30 streak where they didn't make a shot, of course). Pitt shot the ball much better, shooting 43% from the field, and Ashton Gibbs seemed to have found his shooting stroke again, which will definitely be needed to beat Syracuse. Along those lines, Pitt needs to get more contribution from other players. Isaiah Epps and Talib Zanna combined for only two points in 55 minutes of action. That kind of offense from players eating up that many minutes simply won't cut it.
Next, the turnovers have to stop. At the very least, Pitt cannot commit as many bad ones. Nasir Robinson and Lamar Patterson accounted for 11 of the team's 18 turnovers against Marquette and has been the case all year, some were downright sloppy. Syracuse, on the other hand, forced 22 Providence turnovers in their last game and will be looking to continue that pattern.
Now, the Orange aren't likely to apply a full-court pressure defense against the Panthers, but the zone forces opponents to do one of two things. The opposing team can try and shoot over the perimeter defenders or they can try to pass inside to collapse the zone and get easy buckets or pass outside for a three-point shot. At all costs, Pitt should avoid the former because since conference play started, they've been a horrid three-point shooting team and they have a bad habit of seemingly jacking them up this season. On the other hand, the Panthers (particularly last season) did an excellent job carving up the inside of the zone with Nasir Robinson, who exploded for 21 points as Pitt beat Syracuse at the Pete. Look for them to try and do the same thing.
I'm interested in seeing what sort of defensive formation Jamie Dixon will use against the Orange. The zone worked well in the first half against Marquette, while playing man defense has hardly worked since Big East play started this season. But playing zone also gives up a lot of long rebounds and if Pitt wants to win, they have to get second chance opportunities by crashing the offensive glass and actually convert them for points. If Pitt is going to take advantage of the Orange anywhere, it'll be rebounding, which Pitt has struggled in doing the past two games.
Isaiah Epps will likely play starting point guard again, moving Ashton to the two. I was really impressed with the way he played against Marquette and he dished out the ball well. While Epps didn't have a great stat line (zero points, two assists, two steals, and a turnover), he played under control and the offense ran much better with him at point than Gibbs.
Lastly, Pitt has to get something out of its frontcourt. Anything, really, because in the past few games, they haven't shown up. Whether it's getting beaten for rebounds or not putting the easy ones away, the front court has been disappointing. Robinson has to have a good game for Pitt to win and Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor have to rebound the ball well. The zone, as I said above, will give Pitt chances at offensive rebounding and they have to take them.
If we're judging off of recent games, I don't think Pitt wins. But I said that the last time the Panthers visited the Dome and I was wrong. The game will tip-off at 7:30 on ESPN.