Syracuse goes for its fifth win in a row when it hosts Pittsburgh (12:00 p.m. ET / ACC Network) on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. Ahead of the game, The Juice Online’s Saugat Sen and Wes Cheng give their predictions below.
SAUGAT SEN (Season Record 2-1): The Panthers sit one game behind the Orange in the ACC standings and a win here will go a long way for both teams for ACC tournament seeding. Pittsburgh has swept their season series against North Carolina and handed league leader Florida State their only conference loss.
The Orange are winners of four straight, the Panthers have won two in a row. This game is in Syracuse, which strangely may tilt in Pittsburgh’s favor since the Orange are undefeated on the road in conference play this season, and are just 1-3 at home.
Xavier Johnson will be key for the Panthers in this game. The sophomore point guard is leading the team in assists and is shooting almost 40 percent from behind the arc. His ability to find players and make the outside shot is going to be key against the improving Syracuse zone.
As a team, the Panthers have only attempted 341 three pointers, 12th in the ACC. And Pittsburgh only shoots 30 percent from behind the arc as a team. Expect the Orange to take advantage of this by keeping the zone compact and dare the Panthers to shoot over the zone.
The defense of Joe Girard III and Buddy Boeheim at the top of the key will be critical in this one. I predict that Pittsburgh leads this game most of the way, but are unable to keep up with the hot shooting Orange down the stretch, as Syracuse takes it 75-68.
WES CHENG (Season Record 9-2): During Syracuse’s four-game win streak, the Orange has flexed its offensive muscles, averaging 73.5 points per game. That has moved Syracuse up to 21st in the country in AdjO according to KenPom. SU has also dropped in its defense ranking after giving up 82 points to Notre Dame, and they’re at 116th in the country in AdjD, which is unusual for a Jim Boeheim coached team.
Pitt meanwhile comes in as a slightly above average defensive (74) and offensive team (91), with two very capable outside shooters: Xavier Johnson (39.2 percent from 3-point land) and Ryan Murphy (35.9). And while he’s not a proficient outside shooter (30.7 percent from 3), guard Trey McGowens is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for Pitt. He’s their leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, and also averages 3.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 steals.
But the recent revelation has come from 6-6 freshman guard Justin Champagnie. He was hampered by a knee injury in the fall and struggled to find his offensive rhythm early in the season, but he’s been in double digits in six of his last eight games, including a team-high 17 points in Pitt’s 74-72 win over Boston College earlier in the week.
Champagnie has established himself as the Panters’ most versatile offensive weapon, with the ability to hit outside shots as well as score in the lane. Couple that with Murphy, a JUCO transfer who always seems to make the right play and take the right shot, it’s no wonder Pitt is a surprising 4-4 and tied for seventh in the conference in year two of the Jeff Capel era.
Still, with the improved inside play that Syracuse has received from Marek Dolezaj (double figure rebounds in three of his last four games), and Bourama Sidibe coming off one of his best games of the season (12 points, 5 rebounds), I see that as being the difference at the Carrier Dome on Saturday in a 70-62 win for Syracuse.