- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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The critics became supporters, the doubters believers.
A year ago, Pittsburgh went to Syracuse with a gaudy record and a whole lot of people who thought the Panthers were little more than an inflated byproduct of an easy schedule.
By the time the Panthers left central New York, they were selling tickets for the bandwagon.
Pitt’s 82-72 win at the Carrier Dome signaled the Panthers’ arrival on last season’s national scene -- they were ranked for the first time just two days later -- and erased the Orange’s place on a short list of the nation’s unbeatens.
So here we are again. Sort of.
Syracuse again is undefeated, one of only four teams left with a chance at perfection, as it faces Pittsburgh at the Petersen Events Center (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
But this time the Panthers’ bandwagon is plenty crowded already. Pitt, picked to win the conference in the preseason, has done little to let loose of that mantle, losing just once in a strangely awful game against Tennessee.
This isn’t just another date on the calendar. Right now, this is The Date on the calendar -- a clash of two top-five teams who are arguably the two best teams in the Big East (though Villanova might have something to say about that).
So as all eyes turn to Pittsburgh on Monday night, here are some specific things to keep those eyes trained on:
No Go for Joseph: If Syracuse is going to keep its perfect streak intact, it’s going to have to do so without leading scorer Kris Joseph (14.6 ppg). The junior forward crashed hard to the floor in the Orange’s win against Cincinnati on Saturday, slamming his head onto the court. He never returned against the Bearcats, and though Syracuse is optimistic he’ll be back for Saturday’s game against Villanova, he won’t make the trip to Pittsburgh. The Cuse is fortunate that it goes 10 deep on a regular basis, but guys like Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair and James Southerland, all talented role players, will have to up their production collectively to take up the points typically scored by Joseph.
Man versus team: Rick Jackson is trying to become only the second Big East player in the past 15 years to average 12 rebounds per game (DeJuan Blair is the only other one). The senior collects 11.8 right now, a one-man wrecking crew for the Orange. But can he single-handedly handle the Panthers? Pittsburgh ranks first in the country in rebounding margin, topping its opponents by 13 boards a game. But unlike Syracuse, the Panthers succeed by committee. Gary McGhee averages 7.3 rebounds per game, but six other guys are at 4.5 or better. Jackson is going to have to get some help if the Cuse is going to have a chance at an edge.
3-point shooting: Ashton Gibbs put himself on the map against Syracuse last season when he drained 6 of 9 3-pointers en route to a 24-point night. Not much has changed this season. Gibbs shoots 45 percent from beyond the arc, 15th best in the country, and leads a hot-shooting Panthers team. Pitt ranks 25th in the country, draining 39.4 percent of its treys, with Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown offering steady shooting as well. But can Pitt score over Syracuse’s long zone? No one has had too much success doing that this season. The Orange rank seventh in the nation in 3-point field goal defense, allowing a stingy 27.3 percent from deep.
Defense: So zone or man? Which works better? Interesting one here. Pitt long has cut its teeth and staked its reputation on its defense. Nothing’s changed. The Panthers allow only 62 points per game and find beauty in making games really ugly, playing an in-your-face, in-your-business man-to-man that harasses its opponents.
But in Syracuse, they may have met their match. Jim Boeheim’s zone is working wonders this season, allowing only 59 points per game and forcing teams into awful shots. Opponents average only 32 percent from the floor and that defense allowed the Orange to bide some time until it found its footing offensively. It also generates much of Syracuse’s offense. Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche are lethal in transition when they get going off a miss.
The Zoo: Pittsburgh’s Peterson Events Center has been one of the Panthers’ main weapons since it opened nine years ago. The students stretch the baseline and down underneath one hoop, bringing an atmosphere and energy to the campus that few can match. Not surprisingly, the Panthers are 144-11 at The Pete, having won 50 of their past 51 games there. Need more to be impressed? Well, eight times top-5 opponents have entered the arena. Eight times they’ve left with a loss. Will the Orange become No. 9?
Syracuse, of course, is no stranger to home-court advantage. But the Orange have only played a handful of games outside of the Carrier Dome and none of them in particularly hostile environments. They played Michigan and Georgia Tech in Atlantic City, Michigan State in New York City, at Seton Hall and at St. John’s. With a loyal, deep and willing-to-travel fan following, along with a strong alumni base in New York and New Jersey, all of those games had plenty of orange-clad fans in the building.
But not even wily Cuse fans will be able to turn the Oakland Zoo into a Syracuse home game.
The critics became supporters, the doubters believers.A year ago, Pittsburgh went to Syracuse with a gaudy record and a whole lot of people who thought the Panthers were little more than an inflated byproduct of an easy schedule.