Pitt’s recent domination of Syracuse has been well-documented, but the reasons behind that success differ, depending on who tells the story.
The Panthers have won 14 of the past 19 meetings against the Orange and have won five of six at Carrier Dome. They have done so in a variety of ways.
The players believe that offensive rebounding and their ability to pass to beat the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense have been key, but coach Jamie Dixon thinks the Panthers simply are a good team that wins a lot of games against a lot of teams.
“We have had the best record in the Big East and one of the best records in the country, so you probably have to start there,” Dixon said. “We have had pretty good records against everybody when you add them all up, so that has something to do with it. We’ve been asked that question a number of times, especially up at Syracuse after we beat them, they want answers and there is no answer.
“It is just we have played well against them in close games and come out with the win.”
No. 22 Pitt (16-1, 4-0) will attempt to duplicate whatever has worked in recent years as the Panthers play No. 2 Syracuse (17-0, 4-0) today in an ACC clash at Carrier Dome with sole possession of first place in the conference on the line.
Pitt’s veteran players say they are excited about the matchup because it is Syracuse, an old Big East foe. The teams have had some epic battles over the years.
The Panthers do think their ability to pass the ball, especially their interior passing, is why they have had so much success against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.
“I think it is just that we are really familiar with their zone,” senior Lamar Patterson said. “We’re just familiar with the way they played. … Coach Dixon knows how to dissect their zone, so as long as we just keep getting inside of it, I think we will be fine.
Junior Cam Wright said: “Coach Dixon has been around for a long time, does a great job of preparing us, but it is up to us to go out and execute. But our coaches do a great job of recruiting players who can all pass the ball.”
Patterson said the key to the 2-3 zone is the length of the Orange’s frontcourt and the fact that they are all athletic enough to cover a lot of ground from the 3-point line to the key. That means there are few openings and very few holes in the zone.
The Panthers have had a lot of big men — post players, centers — who have been good passers. That has enabled Dixon to design a variety of ways to get the ball inside and down behind the zone for layups or dunks.
“Their frontcourt is just long,” Patterson said. “It is real long, so that works to their advantage. But it can also be a downfall if you can get inside of it and are able to make plays behind it, and we have playmakers on our team.
But Patterson conceded that the Syracuse defense “is working for them. They got to the Final Four last year, so you don’t change what is working.
“But if they want to stay in that 2-3 then we will figure a way to beat it. We have always had good passers, especially our big men passers — that is where it really comes down to getting the ball inside to them and then letting them create and us guards need to be ready to attack and rebound.”
Dixon said defensive rebounding will be important for the Panthers as will slowing the Orange in transition because they aren’t a great half-court scoring team. They score a lot by manufacturing points through transition, offensive rebounding and steals.
“They have so many different guys who can score around the basket, and transition and offensive rebounding seems to be to us where they get their baskets,” Dixon said. “They come up with loose balls and get out in transition and have a nose for the ball around the basket.
“So what we have to do really is run good offense so you don’t give them transition opportunities, and you have to block out and limit those points and keep them off the free-throw line as well.”
Syracuse was picked to finish second in the ACC in the preseason poll and is led by ACC player of the year candidate C.J. Fair, who is averaging 17.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He is only one of four players averaging double figures for the Orange.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.