Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was asked why Pitt under Jamie Dixon has been so successful against the Orange over the years, and he said the answer to that is easy.
“You know why?” Boeheim said Monday on the ACC coaches teleconference when asked why his team has struggled against the Panthers at Petersen Events Center. “It is because they are good. Geez, that is really hard to figure out. They won the most games in the Big East, if you recall, in the last 10 years.
“Good teams are good at home. They are good at home. Not many people win at Duke, either, and you know why? Because they’re good.”
Boeheim and the top-ranked Orange (23-0, 10-0) will take a shot at beating No. 25 Pitt (20-4, 8-3) tonight at Petersen Events Center in a key ACC game as the Panthers try to remain in the race for the regular-season conference championship.
Syracuse won, 59-54, Jan. 18 at Carrier Dome, but that was a game Pitt’s players and coaches felt like they let get away..
While it is true that Dixon has had good success against Boeheim — Pitt is 10-5 against Syracuse under Dixon — the Orange have won three of the past four games in the series.
But Syracuse’s three wins were at Carrier Dome or Madison Square Garden. The Panthers have won five in a row at home against Syracuse and are 6-1 against them at Petersen Events Center.
But it isn’t just the venue. The Panthers have won five of their past seven at Carrier Dome, an indication that they match up so well against the Orange.
Dixon didn’t have many theories, except to say “We have won a lot of games against a lot of teams.” A big part of it, though, is Pitt’s ability to break the Orange’s trademark 2-3 zone.
The zone, which is more like a 2-2-1 according to a number of coaches who have faced it in recent years, works for the Orange because Boeheim recruits tall, long wing players who can cover a lot of ground and defend a large area between the 3-point line and the key.
But the Panthers usually have had excellent interior passers and have been able to get the ball down low and behind the zone for easy layups.
Even in their Jan. 18 loss, the Panthers got a lot of good looks but missed some layups and putbacks.
“The thing we have been working on as a team [is] we have young big guys and finishing around the rim is something that we are trying to improve and get better at,” Dixon said. “But we definitely got the ball where we wanted to get it and got it inside against them early and often when we played them. That is what you have to do; we did a better job of that against Syracuse than we did against Virginia Tech.
“I think we did a good job, but like I said, finishing inside with our big guys and with our three freshman, as well as Talib [Zanna], is something we need to improve on, there is no question. We are getting the ball where we want to get it, we’re getting it in good spots. We have to do a better job of finishing out of it.”
The players on the wing make the zone tough to attack because they are so athletic, but the Orange also are reliant on a shot-blocker who protects the rim and doesn’t roam too far from it, which makes it a little different than a traditional 2-3 zone.
Rakeem Christmas is that player this year, and he is second in the ACC in blocked shots (2.1 per game), a big reason the Orange lead the conference with 5.2 blocks per game.
Dixon said that Christmas, who had three of the Orange’s seven blocks against the Panthers, was recruited by Boeheim specifically to fit that role of rim-protector.
“That is what they do, they recruit for that. They have three high-level big guys that they recruited for their defense first and offense second,” Dixon said. “And then, obviously, they have the wings. It is a very good zone but they also have [highly recruited guys playing it], so there are some really good things there.”
One major issue for the Panthers is the health of forward Lamar Patterson and Zanna, the Panthers’ two senior leaders and leading scorers.
Patterson injured his thumb last week at Miami and was clearly bothered by it Saturday against Virginia Tech, fighting his way through a 1-of-9 shooting day.
Zanna has been hobbled with a sprained ankle for the past week and has scored just 17 points in the past two games.
Dixon said Zanna has moved around better and looks like he should be a little more mobile than he was Saturday, but Patterson, who didn’t practice Monday, is still healing.
“We’ll see. He hasn’t been put in a game-like situation, so you never know,” Dixon said of Patterson’s thumb. “It feels good when he is walking around and having lunch, but playing in a game is a little different deal, so we will have to see.”
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.