Men’s Basketball: Old foes rekindle rivalry as top-ranked Syracuse visits Pitt


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

When the ball goes in the air for tonight’s tipoff, the Panthers will need to find a way to break out of their three-game slump — especially with the class of the nation opposing them.

Pitt (20-4, 8-3 ACC) has scored just 55.3 points per game in its last three contests, in which the Panthers lost to Virginia at home and needed overtime to defeat conference bottom-feeders Miami and Virginia Tech. That number is 18 points lower than Pitt’s 73.3 points-per-game overall average in the 2013-2014 season.

While No. 17 Virginia ranks among the nation’s best teams defensively, the Hurricanes and the Hokies employed zone defenses that Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said contributed to the close games. 

Facing two relatively uncelebrated zones, the Panthers’ last three games have been decided by five points or fewer.

As No. 1 Syracuse (23-0, 10-0 ACC) visits the Petersen Events Center at 7 p.m., the Orange bring college basketball’s most notorious zone defense to the table — one that should challenge Pitt more than that of Miami or Virginia Tech.

“Coach [Jim] Boeheim, he recruits guys who are long, athletic, super tall like the Monstars,” guard Cameron Wright said, referring to the freakishly athletic team in the 1996 movie “Space Jam.”

But as former Big East and current ACC rivals, each side knows what to expect.

“There’s a long history with us,” Dixon said. “We know what they’re going to do, and they know what we’re going to do.”

The most recent installment in that history was a 59-54 Syracuse victory against Pitt at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 18. Pitt held a 52-49 advantage with three minutes to play that Saturday, but the Orange finished on a 10-2 run to remain undefeated.

“They were the better team that day,” Wright said. “We’re definitely excited to play them again.”

That same anticipation has stuck with the student body and the University itself, where the No. 25 Panthers face another top-five team at the Petersen Events Center. As the Oakland Zoo proudly boasts, Pitt is 9-0 against teams ranked in the top five on its home floor.

But on the player’s side, the focus remains on playing the game as opposed to any hype and fanfare.

“I was always told by my father to just go to sleep [the night before],” Wright said. “It’s a normal game when the ball goes in the air.”

A huge part of the players’ focus on the game play centers on shaking a stretch of rusty performances.

In his team’s recent games, freshman point guard Josh Newkirk saw other teams trying to slow Pitt down. As a result, Pitt’s games resemble those from the Panthers’ days in the Big East with a style Newkirk describes as “grinding.”

“All games, you can’t really score a lot, get out and run,” Newkirk said. “You just gotta grind it out sometimes and win with defense.”

With the use of zone defenses against the Panthers by teams such as Miami and Virginia Tech, which traditionally defend in man-to-man defense, scoring declined as Dixon thought it would, especially alongside the implementation of stricter foul rules on the perimeter.

Against Virginia Tech, the Panthers’ offense against the zone was impacted by the injury to Lamar Patterson’s shooting hand. Patterson shot multiple air-ball attempts from 3-point range and finished 1-of-9 from the field.

Patterson’s status is still a question mark for Wednesday’s game, and Dixon said the forward did not practice Monday. Pitt’s leading scorer posted 18 points in his last game against Syracuse.

In tandem with the offense, Dixon says his team’s rebounding also needs to get better. Virginia Tech out-rebounded Pitt by 15 Saturday, a rare occurrence for a Dixon-coached team.

“We’ve got to block out better, we’ve got to make shots, we’ve got to come up with long rebounds better,” Dixon said.

While the Panthers’ flaws were exposed in their last three games, they also showed the mental fortitude necessary to win games that just as easily could have been lost. To beat Syracuse, the Panthers need a full 40 minutes of mental toughness.

“This game is mental more than it is physical,” Wright said. “Basketball is a game of perseverance, and I have faith in my team that we will persevere.”