Some positives in Syracuse’s first loss of season

This game was supposed to tell us something about the Orange. It was supposed to tell us whether it is a legit contender. But once Kris Joseph’s head ricocheted off the court over the weekend against Cincinnati, the idea that this game would determine whether it is a championship-caliber team went out the window. Pitt once again had Syracuse’s number. The Panthers have won five straight and 13 of 16 against the Orange. Overall though, this was a positive game for the Orange in which there were a lot of positives to take away from the loss.

How Pitt won

Great Start – The Panthers opened up a 19-0 lead by pounding the ball inside. The Zoo is an intimidating place to play whether you’re a freshman or a senior, and that place was probably the loudest it has ever been.

A clinic on how to beat the 2-3 zone – Jamie Dixon should sell DVDs on how to beat the zone because he understands it and is able to teach his kids to stick to the fundamentals. There were four ways the Panthers beat the zone: 1. Work the high post. They got it to the high post either by driving through the first line of defense or passing to their big men. Once inside, there are so many options. They can take the mid-range jumper, continue driving to the hoop, pass it into the post or kick it out for a 3. There is always an option once the zone collapses, and Pitt rarely made the wrong decision.
2. Beat the zone back. Early in the game Pitt was able to push the ball off of misses and turnovers and get easy baskets before the zone even had a chance to set up.
3. They didn’t settle. They shot just 15 3-pointers and made sure to move the ball until they got a decent shot. That’s how the Panthers shot 48 percent in the game, well above Syracuse’s average allowed of 37 percent.

4. Rebounding – The zone is vulnerable to strong rebounding teams because it’s much harder for the defense to box out off of missed shots since the defenders aren’t assigned to a man. Pitt crashed the boards and out-rebounded SU 41-27. Gary McGhee (the guy who looks like he’d be the muscle for some Bond supervillain) made Rick Jackson’s night quite difficult. Although Jackson finished with another double-double, netting 10 points and 11 rebounds, he didn’t get any easy looks with McGhee on him. It was like two sumo wrestlers banging underneath, and McGhee won the majority of those battles. But credit Jackson for not forcing the issue. He made five of 11 shots and had just one turnover.

Clutch shots – I mentioned the Panthers made just 6 3-pointers, but five of them were at extremely critical junctures. Just take a look at when those 3s were hit:
-Syracuse just went on the 17-0 run to cut it to 19-17 when Brown hits 3-pointer.
-James Southerland hits a three to cut the lead to 28-27 when Gibbs makes one at the end of the half.
-Syracuse finally ties the game at 41-41 when Woodall hits a 3.
-The Orange cut it down to two once again, 46-44, when Wanamaker hits.
-Gibbs hits a 3 to take a 62-53 lead with 6:30 to go. That was part of a 8-0 run that just about put the game out of reach.
And those were just the 3-pointers. There were plenty of other clutch plays that kept the Orange at arm’s length.

As I said at the beginning, there were plenty of positives Syracuse can take away from this loss:

Poise – Despite trailing 19-0, the Orange never got angry at one another and it stayed calm while battling back. The team understood the game was not over, and more importantly, understood it wasn’t going to get back into the game with one shot. It didn’t panic and jack up 3-pointers but simply played its game and made the necessary adjustments on defense.

Limited turnovers – The Orange had four turnovers in the first eight minutes and then three in the final 32. That’s a remarkable feat against an always tough Pitt team.

Freshmen contributions – C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters really stepped up in Joseph’s absence. Waiters had an all-around good game with nine points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Fair led the team in scoring with 16 points and added nine rebounds. He was extremely active and just seemed to be in the right places at the right time. He hustled for rebounds and got to the rim and drew contact.

But it wasn’t all positive for SU:

Free-throw shooting – Surprise, surprise. It rears its ugly head again. Syracuse made eight of 15 free throws. The biggest culprit was Fair who hit just four of his eight attempts.

Not clutch – The Orange had six chances to tie or take the lead, and only once did it convert. It hit a lot of shots to bring the game closer, but it could never get over the hump.

Freshman contrition – Fab Melo played the first two minutes, and then Baye Keita took over and played the next five. And that was it for both of them. With the two playing the center spot, the Orange fell behind 15-0 with all 15 points coming in the paint. Boeheim pulled the two, and they played as many minutes as Mookie after that point.

It would’ve been a huge win. The media would’ve been talking about the Orange as possibly the best team in the nation. The worst part is it still hasn’t won a game outside of NY/NJ, and we will have to continue to hear about that. But maybe it boosted the confidence of Fair and Waiters. Maybe this team won’t be intimidated away from Syracuse again. Either way, it’s time to move on because Villanova comes to town this Saturday.

Notes

-How many times did Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman mention they thought Pitt would make it to the Final Four this season? Every time I kept thinking, “Syracuse is without its top scorer, they are playing on one of the biggest home court advantages in college basketball and they are hanging right with Pitt.” I completely get picking Pitt to make the Final Four but how about some love for the Orange?

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