We've talked quite a bit about Pitt's NCAA Tournament hopes lately. Those hopes got a nice boost today with an impressive 66-52 win on the road against Syracuse.
The victory for the Panthers is significant on a few fronts. Pitt leaves this game to play two contests against ranked Louisville and Duke teams. After that, the competition gets a little lighter in Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, but both of those games are on the road. There are no 'gimmes' left on the schedule and getting a quality win at this stage is big.
It's also a very nice road win, which looks good this time of year. The Panthers' earlier victory against the Orange was big, but this is a different Syracuse team with Jim Boeheim back on the sidelines. Coming into the game, they were only 4-5 without Boeheim, who was suspended for the team's first nine contests. Since he's been back? They were a completely different team and 14-4.
In addition, this was a very tough atmosphere. I know Syracuse gets a bad rap for fan support at times during games, but the crowd showed up and was very loud today. It was the largest crowd for a college basketball game this season and just makes Pitt's win that much more impressive.
Also difficult is beating the same team twice in a season - particularly when said team is pretty good. The Orange are 18-10 on the season and according to major projections, were an NCAA Tournament team heading into today. They still have a decent chance to make it but make no mistake - they needed this game almost as much as Pitt did.
The early win against Syracuse was important. On the road and with Boeheim back, this one was even bigger.
To Pitt's specific effort, they had some down moments. They were a disaster offensively in the beginning, scoring only two points and making only one of their first 11 shots. Then there was a bad sequence to close the half, as the team turned the ball over and gave up a three-pointer. Instead of going into halftime with potentially a seven or eight-point lead, the Panthers' advantage was only two. There was also an ugly six-minute stretch in the second half when Pitt desperately needed to extend its lead where they went scoreless, shooting 0-3 from the field and turning the ball over four times. The team's saving grace, really, was that Syracuse was almost as bad, scoring only four points during that time.
But outside of that, what you had to be impressed with was the effort. Pitt really got after it on the boards and simply dominated Syracuse there, 40-20 (including 14 offensive rebounds). Leading the way there was Jamel Artis and Michael Young, who combined for 24 boards.
Artis had a big game for the Panthers with 21 points, including some late clutch shots and James Robinson had another strong game with 13 points and five assists. The guy who continues to do more is Ryan Luther, who played quite a bit and had six points, five rebounds, and a steal. He's not a star by any means, but one of those 'glue' guys that all teams need. It's encouraging to see him contribute more and get more time because he is a guy they will need to rely on a little more next season.
Unlike the Wake Forest game, they played like it was one they really needed to have. I don't know if Jamie Dixon gave them a wake up call or not, but there was a more concerted effort today when it came to playing with urgency.
Speaking of Dixon, I know he didn't have a lot of fans after the team's game against Wake Forest after failing to win any of the big three games against North Carolina, Miami, and Virginia. But this is why you have to take the entire season into context. Pitt surely looked lost in that narrow win against Wake but Dixon has to be given some credit for helping the team rebound with a strong effort today against a good team. As of right now, the program is on track to improve over last season and that's the goal for any team when it comes down to it.
This morning I wrote about Pitt still having work to do. And guess what? That's still the case. The Panthers can't afford to lay an egg the rest of the season and still hope to get into the NCAAs. But what today's win does is give them a little cushion, which was important because most projections had them getting closer to the bubble.
Overall, the Panthers had some troubles scoring at times but had a great effort. This was a game that Pitt needed and helps their NCAA Tournament standing.