Item: With all due respect, we’re still shaking our head over the fact that Virginia Tech (18-13, 10-8), picked to finish 14th pre-season in the 15 team ACC, nearly missed beating Syracuse in regulation at the Dome, ended up with more league victories, and as a higher seed in this week’s 63rd annual conference tournament than SU (19-11, 9-9), even acknowledging the combined 0-4 league start under Mike Hopkins/Jim Boeheim. For the second straight season, the Orange dropped four of its last five regular season games on Boeheim’s watch (and SU lost four of its final six games in 2014 after the 25-0 start), not exactly the way to prepare for playing in a single elimination format.
The end result of this current small slide dating back to the Louisville loss on Feb. 17 is that Syracuse begins this week’s run in post season play not only gunning for its first-ever victory in the esteemed ACC Tournament, but having the not-so-easy task of trying to map out, then execute, a game plan to knock off pain-in-the-rear Pittsburgh (20-10, 9-9) Wednesday afternoon at the Verizon Center in Washington (12:00 p.m. ET / ESPN).
A ‘Cuse win would be only the seventh in the last 21 games between the two teams, dating back to Jamie Dixon taking the Pitt reins in 2004, although SU is 2-0 in the post season meetings over that time period. Currently, it’s a four game Panthers winning streak, they simply play aggressive defense, know how to attack the zone, and seemingly have just enough offense to out-score the Orange in low scoring affairs.
So no pressure in what could end up being an NCAA Tournament play-in game, perhaps just to make it into the First Four play-in round at Dayton, right? And, if successful in moving past the matchup-challenging Panthers, all that waits next is rested No. 1 seed North Carolina less than 24 hours later.
“We’ve just got to put it (the losing streak) behind us,” Michael Gbinije said following the regular season finale against Florida State, on a weekend in which he was also named to the ACC all-conference second team by both the media and the coaches. “We have to get ready for who we have coming up next (Pittsburgh), and continue to try and get better.”
Improvement down the home stretch when the tournament committee members are watching most keenly has turned out to be no small task. During the current season-ending five game dip inconsistent, un-Boeheim-like play in crucial stretches, especially on key late game offensive and defensive possessions, has stuck out and led to many sighs of frustration. The ‘Cuse has been outrebounded by an average of five boards/game, and has been well into double figures with those cringe inducing turnovers averaging 13/game. Difference makers if the shots aren’t falling.
The old adage that veteran backcourts can also be a huge difference maker during March Madness would seemingly bode well for Syracuse with Gbinije and Trevor Cooney finishing their five year collegiate runs. Cooney, a rare holdover from the ’13 Final Four team, has been around long enough to know that if the Orange offense is in a funk, he and his six teammates that play the competitive minutes have to step up in the other facets of the game.
“That’s what you’ve got to do when you’re offense isn’t as good, Cooney said after the FSU defeat. “You’ve got to rebound; you’ve got to do better on defense, you’ve got to do the little things (avoid sloppy play). We’ve got to clean up the little things. We’re going to shoot the ball well; we’re going to get better on offense so I’m not worried about that (point production).”
Words that bring magic to the ears of those in Orange Nation of the eve of post season play.