On Jan. 18, the No. 22 Pitt men’s basketball team traveled to the Carrier Dome in upstate New York and fell to No.2 Syracuse 59-54 in an instant classic in front of a crowd of 30,000-plus and a national TV audience.
Flash forward three and a half weeks, and the No. 25 Panthers (20-4, 8-3 ACC) get a shot of redemption as they host the No. 1 Orange (23-0, 10-0 ACC) at the Petersen Events Center on Wednesday night.
Pitt probably feels as if it let the previous game against the Orange slip away. The Panthers overcame a nine-point second half deficit and led 52-51 with under two minutes remaining in the game, but Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis hit a few late shots to secure the win for the home team.
Jamie Dixon’s Panthers are 10-5 (6-1 at home) against Jim Boeheim’s Orange. Pitt is undefeated (9-0) at the Pete against top-five teams all-time, winning twice against Syracuse.
Pitt hopes to continue that trend. This is the second time that Pitt will host a No. 1-ranked opponent (Connecticut, 2009) at the Pete.
Going into the rematch against Syracuse, Pitt has been struggling as of late. After losing back-to-back home games against Duke (80-65) and Virginia (48-45), and winning two overtime battles against Miami (59-55) and Virginia Tech (62-57 in two OTs), Pitt is looking to secure a signature victory for its NCAA tournament resume.
As of now, Pitt has only one win over a Top 60 opponent, which came against Stanford on a neutral court. You could attribute this to a weak non-conference slate, as Pitt has taken care of business against most ACC teams. A win over No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse would boost Pitt’s potential seeding.
Since the first matchup against Pitt, Syracuse has been on a roll. The Orange have won road games against Miami (64-52) and Wake Forest (67-57), and they have defeated No. 17 Duke (91-89 OT), Notre Dame (61-55) and Clemson (57-44) at home.
In Game 1 against Syracuse, free throws may have been Pitt’s downfall, as the Panthers shot 54.2 percent from the free-throw line (13 for 24). Though Pitt put on a strong rebounding display, the Panthers have been getting outrebounded in recent contests. In the Panthers’ last game, Virginia Tech won that battle 43-28.
In last month’s game vs. the Orange, Pitt was led by senior guard Lamar Patterson, who finished with a game-high 18 points, and senior center Talib Zanna, who recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Last game against Virginia Tech, Patterson scored just five points of 1 of 9 shooting (0 for 6 from three), and his hand was bandaged.
For Pitt to knock off No. 1 Syracuse, they will need a healthy Patterson, who had scored 25 points and willed Pitt to an overtime win at Miami. If Patterson isn’t 100 percent healthy, Pitt will need to have solid contributions from Zanna, junior guard Cameron Wright and sophomore point guard James Robinson.
In Game 1, Syracuse true freshman guard Ennis finished with 16 points on 5 of 8 shooting. Three others scored in double figures, including senior forward C.J. Fair who scored 13 points and six rebounds. Pitt will need to contain Ennis and Fair for the Panthers to get an upset win.
When Jim Boeheim was asked about Pitt’s success against top-ranked opponents, he exclaimed:
“You know why? Because they’re good. That’s really hard to figure out. They won the most games in the Big East, if you recall, in the last 10 years. Teams are good at home. They’re good at home. Not many people win at Duke, either. You know why? Because they’re good.”
Tomorrow night’s matchup of ranked teams should mark for another instant classic in the growing Pitt-Syracuse rivalry.
Brett Tunno is a staff writer for City of Champions. Follow him on Twitter.