While there were no questions regarding the validity of No. 2 Syracuse as a contender in the ACC, with the Orange picked in the preseason poll to finish second behind No. 23 Duke, the same can’t be said of No. 22 Pittsburgh. While Jamie Dixon’s Panthers entered the game undefeated in ACC play and 16-1 overall, there were some who wondered just how good Pittsburgh was.
Why? It likely had a lot to do with their non-conference slate, with Pittsburgh’s best win coming against Stanford and the majority of their wins coming against teams with triple-digit computer rankings. But to focus solely on that would be a mistake, as players such as Lamar Patterson, Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna have improved since last season and have shown themselves to be formidable talents in the ACC.
If anything Pitt’s 59-54 loss at the Carrier Dome showed a national audience that, even in defeat, the Panthers are without a doubt a contender in the ACC. Pitt attacked the Syracuse zone well, using good ball movement to hit the high post and short corner, but the issue for them was the number of missed opportunities close to the basket.
Syracuse, which entered the game ranked fourth in the country in block percentage, finished the game with seven blocked shots and Pittsburgh made just four of their ten layup/dunk attempts. According to hoop-math.com the Panthers entered Saturday shooting 54.3% at the rim and while that 14-percent margin may not look like much, against a team as good as Syracuse those missed opportunities can prove costly.
That was the case for Pittsburgh, who can also take positives such as their effort on the boards away from the loss. The Panthers rebounded 44.4% of their misses, scoring 19 second-chance points as a result, and limited Syracuse to just three fast-break points. While the Orange aren’t the running team we’ve come accustomed to seeing over the years they have the ability to bury teams if allowed to get out in the open floor. Pittsburgh, due in part to their ability to crash the offensive glass, took that away.
No team as good as Pittsburgh has much interest in “moral victories,” and that’s how it should be. Under Dixon the Panthers have accomplished too much over the years to think that simply hanging tough at the Carrier Dome is cause for celebration. With options such as Patterson, Wright, Zanna and point guard James Robinson they’re more than capable of winning a game of this magnitude despite falling short on Saturday.
Pittsburgh likely needed no convincing of that even before Saturday afternoon. If anything, they showed others what they already knew themselves: they’re a contender for the ACC title.