Pitt dominating rivalry with Syracuse
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's teams have lost 13 of their past 16 games against Pitt, so he knows better than anyone what a good Panthers team looks like.
After the latest chapter in this one-sided series, a 74-66 Pitt victory Monday night before a record crowd of 12,925 at the Petersen Events Center, Boeheim believes this Pitt team is something special.
"Pitt is a tremendous basketball team," Boeheim said. "To me, it's probably one of the best if not the best Pitt team we have played. They have a lot of weapons — great senior leadership and strong juniors. When you start three seniors and two juniors, that's a lot of experience and good players."
Several Pitt teams have given Boeheim fits over the years. There was the one with DeJuan Blair and Sam Young that torched Syracuse by 18 two seasons ago. In Jamie Dixon's first season as coach in 2003-04, the Panthers handed Boeheim one of the worst losses of his career at the Carrier Dome, a 66-45 setback the season after Boeheim won a national championship.
So why might this Pitt team be the best Dixon has coached?
"I just think they have a good team overall, top to bottom," Boeheim said. "Their past teams these last few years were very good teams. I think this team shoots better and more consistently. They're still tough defensively and are rebounding the basketball as good as they have been. I just think they have a really good team. They've had good teams, but this is a really good team."
Pitt is alone atop the Big East standings, and the Panthers might be there for a while. DePaul, Notre Dame and Rutgers are next on the schedule. None of them has a winning record in conference play. The toughest opponent in that set of games is Notre Dame, and the Irish have to come to the Petersen Events Center, where the Panthers have won 51 of their past 52 games.
Syracuse, meanwhile, has Villanova next followed by Seton Hall and games at Marquette and Connecticut.
The Orange had to play Monday night without top scorer Kris Joseph, who did not make the trip after hitting his head hard on the floor in Saturday’s victory over Cincinnati. Boeheim acknowledged Joseph's importance to his team, but he did not want to take away from Pitt's effort.
"Injuries happen and you just have to go out there play," he said.
It's unlikely Joseph's presence would have made much difference from a defensive standpoint. Pitt has made a habit of dissecting Syracuse's 2-3 zone with ease over the years, but what the Panthers did to start Monday night's game bordered on the ridiculous. They jumped out to a 19-0 lead against the third-ranked team in the country, and they made it look effortless.
Syracuse recovered and made the game interesting, but the best the Orange could do was tie the score for 16 seconds midway through the second half.
By game's end, Pitt had shot 48 percent from the field. This is nothing new for Pitt against Syracuse. In the Panthers' previous four games against the Orange, all victories, they shot 44, 53, 47 and 48 percent.
Pitt's offensive performance Monday night might have been the most impressive of the recent games because this is one of Boeheim's better defensive teams. Syracuse entered the game first in the league in points allowed (59.8 per game), first in field-goal percentage allowed (.360) and first in 3-point percentage allowed (.265).
"We did a really good job of attacking," Dixon said. "We didn't want to settle for jump shots against the zone. Their (3-point percentage allowed) is ridiculously low. We knew we had to get interior touches and baskets. You have to break a zone with a team, not just one man, and we did that for the most part."
But it was not just Pitt's ability to defeat the zone that allowed the Panthers to hand Syracuse its first loss. They dominated the backboards, 44-30, and held the Orange to 39 percent shooting.
All of it led to a statement victory against a team that many believe has the ingredients for a national-championship run.
"We've really been on a mission to prove to everybody and to ourselves what type of team we are and what we're capable of being," senior forward Gilbert Brown said.