Thursday, January 04, 2007

BIG EAST GAME PREVIEW: Pittsburgh @ Syracuse

January 4, 2006

Two Big East heavyweights and longtime conference member clash for their conference openers tonight in the Carrier Dome. Pittsburgh, ranked #10 in both polls, enter the game as a 1-pt favorite over the home Orange who are looking for a big win to jumpstart their season. Pittsburgh's lone losses have come away from home (at Wisconsin and to Oklahoma State in 2 OT in Oklahoma City), while the Orange have already dropped two in the Dome this season (Wichita State and Drexel) in addition to their loss to Oklahoma State at Madison Square Garden.

Here are the game preview stories from around the web:

Weaker Big East Could Hurt Pitt Come March (Post-Gazette)
Pitt's Reputation Put to Test (Tribune-Review)
Pitt Wants Revenge at Syracuse (Tribune-Democrat)
Panthers Dont Expect Surprises from Orange (Beaver County Times)
Roberts Return Should Help SU on Boards Against Pitt (Democrat & Chronicle)
Ready or Not, Here Comes Big, Bad Pitt to Dome (Post-Standard)
Jones Leaves Orange (Post-Standard)


We have seen how tough it is to win on the road in the Big East already as the home teams have gone 6-0 in conference play thus far. Pittsburgh will look to end that streak when they take to the floor at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse to face the Orange.

This is a match-up of very experienced teams with both teams starting three seniors, a junior and a sophomore (if you count Eric Devendorf as a starter). The Syracuse players came to the Big East with big reputations (all 5 among the top 50 recruits in their classes), while not much was known about many of the Pittsburgh players (only Levance Fields appeared on any top 100 lists among their starters). So, it is a little surprising which team has the top 10 ranking while the other is trying to work its way back into the national rankings and to show they are a player in the Big East.

Pittsburgh has shown they are not quite the same team away from the Peterson EentsCnter as they are on the road. They have allowed an average of 76.8 PPG in their five contests away from home, up greatly from the 56.1 PPG they allow on their home court. Maybe more concerning is the number of offensive rebounds that Pitt allowed against Wisconsin and Oklahoma State as both teams dominated the boards against Pitt. Certainly, the Pitt offense has improved, scoring 77.1 PPG, including 79 PPG away from home.

Pitt is led by 7'0 C Aaron Gray, who averaged 15.6 PPG and 10.9 rebounds a game in their 14 pre-conference contests, shooting 62% from the floor and playing just 28 minutes a game. But, Pitt is not only Aaron Gray, in three games that opponents largerly concentrated on removing Gray from the mix with packed in zones (Florida State, Dayton and Florida A&M), Gray averaged just 6.3 PPG (along with 10.3 rebounds), but the Panthers scored a robust 82 PPG, led by Mike Cook, Antonio Graves and Sam Young. Pitt is a deep and balanced team, Cook is 2nd in scoring with 12 PPG, but he plays just 23 minutes a game. Graves averages 11 PPG and after him the Panthers have six other players averaging between 4.2 PPG and 8.7 PPG and at least 12 minutes of playing time each.

On the other hand, we are still not quite sure what Syracuse is going to give us. Syracuse can look VERY good when they are charging from behind, but it is how they get that far behind that worries us...the turning it off and on nature of this team is something that will not fly in the Big East. Plus, the lost a big lead at home in a loss to Drexel a couple weeks ago, but had to play that second half without senior Terrence Roberts who was injured. Syracuse missed his inside presence as Frank Elegar torched the SU post defense for a career high 27 pts. Pitt will look to expose that weakness by going to Gray, but Roberts is expected to return to game action tonight, after the 19-day layoff.

The Orange have been led by senior Demetris Nichols, who averages 20 PPG and 5.6 rebounds a contest. The 6'8 small forward is the type of player that can give Pitt fits with his ability to hit from the outside and use his length to get inside. Mike Cook will be under a lot of pressure to keep the hot Nichols from continuing his hot streak in Big East play. This is what the Orange have been waiting for from Nichols who suffered through two ice cold seasons as a freshmen and a sophomore. He had a very good run last season in the pre-conference schedule, but struggled again in Big East play, shooting just 38% from the floor and 29% from 3-pt range. Nichols always had it in him, hopefully for the Orange his burst of confidence continues into Big East play this time around.

The rest of the Orange, however, we are not too sure of. Roberts returns from injury tonight and prior to the injury he was averaging 9 PPG and 8 rebounds a contenst. He and Darryl Watkins (9 PPG, 7 rebounds) form an athletic duo in the post, but neither has shown much of an ability to create their own offensive opportunities in the half court offense. Roberts is a POOR free throw shooter (42%) and if they are not flushing the finish on the break or off the board, their offense is very hit or miss. Jim Boeheim has seemed to come down hard on a couple of his younger, but most talented players in freshman Paul Harris and sophomore Eric Devendorf, neither have been in the starting line-up lately, giving way to players such as Andy Rautins and Matt Gorman, but now that Big East play is here and they have been getting more time lately, look for the Orange to ride their 2nd and 3rd leading scorers a little more. Devendorf needs to get better on defense and Harris needs a better understanding of when to go full bore and when to let it come to him, but they have the talent to take SU to another level.

Syracuse is NOT deep. Promising freshman Mike Jones has recently decided to leave the team and Matt Gorman (ankle) is battling injuries. They have already lost big sophomore Arinze Onuaku to preseason knee surgery and freshman Devin Brennan-McBride is not quite ready for the bright lights of the Big East. PG Josh Wright will look to take advantage of Pitt's slower backcourt, but sometimes it seems like Wright gets nowhere faster than any player in the country. His lightning quick burst with the ball is fun to watch, but what he does with it after his penetration is sometimes an adventure. As a team, the Orange average over 15 turnovers a game and barely outrebounded the overmatched competition in the pre-conference schedule. That needs to improve, beginning tonight.

Pittsburgh did not travel to Syracuse last season, but has won three of their last in the Dome and eight of the last 11 in the series between the two team, but Syracuse has the last one under their belts, a 65-61 win last March for the Big East Tournament title.

In reality, tonight is a huge game for Syracuse. The Orange have had a lot of trouble putting 40 minutes of intense effort together, especially on the defensive side of the ball and on the boards. They will need that tonight against Pittsburgh. Although the Panthers are not as good on the boards or defensively as they have been the last couple years, Pittsburgh will still play hard and unselfish for the entire game. So, if Syracuse is going to do it this year, tonight, at home against a top 10 team, is as good of a night as any. For one night, I think the Orange put in the effort and come up with a tough win for once.

NBE Blogger Prediction: Syracuse 73 Pittsburh 68

What is your prediction?


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