Syracuse Basketball at Pittsburgh Game Preview


Tonight at 9 pm, Syracuse basketball travels to Pittsburgh to open ACC conference play.

For college basketball fans, the start of conference play is about as big of a date as there is on the calendar before the conference tournament. Regardless of who plays who or in what invitational tournament, when your favorite team plays a conference foe, you get infinitely more riled up. Conference play is finally here, so the real season can start. This game can be seen on ESPN2 in most places or via WatchESPN.

Syracuse basketball is coming off three straight victories after a rather embarrassing loss to the St. John’s Red Storm on December 13. Pittsburgh is on a six game winning streak and on the edge of the top 25. While Syracuse has zero votes in either the AP or coaches polls, Pittsburgh is nine votes out of the 25th spot in the AP and is actually ranked 25 in the coaches poll. It’s a tale of two schools; Syracuse is an afterthought and Pittsburgh is rising in the polls.

Related Story: What does Syracuse need to do to get into the Top 25?

The first third of the season has not been kind to Syracuse basketball as they sit 10-3 with losses to unranked teams in Wisconsin, Georgetown, and St. John’s. Pittsburgh sits at 10-1, losing only to current #14 ranked Purdue. While Syracuse is shooting the three-pointer at a rate not seen since, well, ever. Pittsburgh is relying heavily on a wing heavy inside/outside game.

Related Story: It's not your imagination, Syracuse shoots a lot of 3-pointers.

In preparation for this game, I went back and took a look at what Pittsburgh has been doing well. One of the things that visually sticks out is their passing and the number of players that get real minutes. Pittsburgh has given 11 players legitimate time in most games. For comparison sake, as history tells us is the norm, Syracuse only plays eight with legitimate minutes. The numbers confirm what the tape shows as Syracuse and Pittsburgh each average 12 turnovers a game, but Pittsburgh averages five more assists a game (20 to 15).

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A few other stats to pay attention to is Pittsburgh rebounding at a better clip than Syracuse (Total rebound percentage: Syracuse 49.1%, Pitt 57%). That 7.9% difference is the difference between 14th in the nation and 195th. Syracuse is attempting 25 threes a game, Pittsburgh attempts 17.6, yet Syracuse hits of 8.8 of them (35.4%) and Pittsburgh hits 7 (39.8%). At the foul line, Syracuse is hitting an abysmal 68.1% (200th in the nation), while Pittsburgh hits 81.6% (3rd). But true shooting percentage tells the real story here as Syracuse is 134th in the nation at 107.3% and Pittsburgh is 6th at 122.6%.

Surely defense is a different story, right? This is how Syracuse stays close to teams. Syracuse gives up an average of 64.2 points per game, which is 36th in the nation. Pittsburgh isn’t far behind at 65.3 points per game (52nd).  Syracuse holds it’s opponents to a true shooting percentage of 96.2% (31st in the nation), but Pittsburgh holds opponents to 93.2% (15th). In the end, Pittsburgh is better than Syracuse in most metrics. It’s a story that follows the narrative on the season so far.

Related Story: How good was Syracuse in non-conference play?

Stepping away from the numbers, there are a few practical things Syracuse basketball can do to keep the game close and potentially score a win. First, Syracuse needs to be more disciplined on defense away from the ball. As interim Head Coach Mike Hopkins has pointed out quite a few times over the last few weeks, Syracuse has a tendency to get lackadaisical when they aren’t immediately playing the ball, which leads to being out of position on most inside or cross-court passes.

Dec 23, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers forward Jamel Artis (1) shoots a free throw against the Western Carolina Catamounts during the first half at the Petersen Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh has two players who can go off at anytime in Michael Young and Jamel Artis. They have formed a very good one-two punch for the Panthers. If Syracuse can limit the damage the two can share between them and make Pittsburgh play a more iso-style game, Syracuse could have a chance. If the game is close, you won’t have to look much further than the difference in free throw percentage. Syracuse is leaving approximately eight points on the floor every night via poor free throw shooting. In a tight game, free throws matter. Syracuse needs to get better to compete with the more talented teams in the ACC.

In the end though, this is a chance for Syracuse to prove it belongs after being home for the tournaments last year and a chance for Pittsburgh to prove they aren’t a fluky top 25 pick with a weak schedule to beat up on.

If you are looking for a prediction, here’s one. Pain, lots of pain. Sorry, couldn’t resist channeling my inner Clubber Lang. A real prediction? Well, the numbers tell me Pittsburgh is going to win. The game has a line of -7.5 for Pitt at home. Even with that line and the numbers above, I’ll say Syracuse closes the gap and makes it close, but with Pittsburgh still pulling it out 83-80.

Whether you miss the game or not tonight, you’ll want to check back for our game review.