Ron Cook: Pitt faces big game vs. No. 1 Syracuse


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It is a big game for Pitt despite guard Cameron Wright's claim of ignorance. "When is that game? I'm bad with the schedule."

That's absurd.

It really is a big game for Pitt, no matter how hard coach Jamie Dixon tries to be coy. "We've beaten a No. 1 team before? I didn't know that. I knew we beat Connecticut, but I didn't know where they were ranked."

That's beyond absurd.

Wright and Dixon know Pitt is playing Syracuse Wednesday night at Petersen Events Center. Pitt has pointed to the game since it went to Syracuse Jan. 18 and lost, 59-54. Dixon and the players were angry after that game because they felt they should have won. They led, 52-49, and had the ball with four minutes left before collapsing down the stretch, scoring just two free throws.

The rematch takes on added significance because Syracuse comes in No. 1 with a 23-0 record, one of just two unbeaten Division I teams along with Wichita State. Pitt badly needs a quality win. It is 20-4, as Dixon is quick to point out. But that record is deceiving. Pitt is 0-4 against the four best teams on its schedule -- Cincinnati, Syracuse, Duke and Virginia. It has not played well since being exposed in an 80-65 loss Jan. 27 to Duke. The wins against Miami and Virginia Tech last week almost seemed like losses. It doesn't feel as if Pitt's grip on an NCAA tournament bid is all that solid, especially with Syracuse coming in and a game at North Carolina Saturday against the surging Tar Heels.

"We've got to win games, we know that," Dixon said. "We know we've lost to four good teams. There's no denying it. There's no hiding from it. We know we've got to win those games if we want to do what we want to do. We haven't played great as of late. That's got to change. We've got to get better."

The opportunity to do it against an unbeaten No. 1 team this late in the season doesn't happen often. Pitt is 2-14 all time against No 1s. It lost at Syracuse, 71-63, early in 2012 in its most recent such game. The two wins came against Connecticut in 2009. Pitt didn't just beat a No. 1 for the first time that season, it climbed to No. 1 for the first time. That team was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and lost a killer game, 78-76, to Villanova in the Round of Eight.

You bet Dixon remembers that Connecticut was No. 1 in the game at Hartford and the one at Petersen Events Center. He knows the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) of every team in college basketball, knows all of the field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover rankings. Please. Surely, Dixon remembers every detail of those Connecticut games, but we'll humor him this morning with a quick recap.

At Connecticut, DeJuan Blair had one of the great performances in Pitt history in a 76-68 win. His 22 points and 23 rebounds would have been amazing under any circumstances, but they came against 7-foot-3 giant Hasheem Thabeet, who would become the overall No. 2 pick in the NBA draft that summer. That was the game in which Blair threw Thabeet over his back as if Thabeet were a rag doll. Thabeet finished with five points and four rebounds.

"It's not that I heard too much about him going into the game," Blair said. "It's that I didn't hear enough about me. I think I showed everybody what I can do."

At Petersen Events Center, Pitt's Sam Young stuck it to Connecticut again with 31 points in a 70-60 win. He had scored 25 in the game in Hartford. "Every time I see those UConn jerseys, my eyes light up," he said.

Pitt outrebounded Connecticut in both games, something it will have to do to beat Syracuse. Pitt had a 35-24 rebounding edge in the first game at Syracuse but has been outrebounded in four consecutive games, a significant factor in its struggles. "We're not rebounding well enough. It's obvious," Dixon said.

It's just as obvious Pitt is having a hard time scoring, especially when Lamar Patterson doesn't carry the team. Patterson, fighting a thumb injury, made 1 of 9 shots in a 62-57 double-overtime win Saturday against Virginia Tech and finished with five points.

"We've got to get better in practice," Dixon said. "We haven't had all of our guys in practice. We're not going to get better talking about it. We've got to get better with our work. You can't just show up for the games and play."

Pitt won't be intimidated by Syracuse or its rugged 2-3 zone defense. It's not just because of that close loss in January. Dixon is 10-5 against Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.

"We match up well," Pitt point guard James Robinson said. "Our coaches do a really good job getting us prepared. We work on our zone offense every day in practice. We know [the Syracuse players] are long and athletic. We can't be passive against them. We've got to be aggressive.

"It would be a great feeling to beat [a No. 1 team]. But we've got a lot of work to do before then. We have a lot of getting-better to do. Hopefully, we can make it happen."

Petersen Events Center has never throbbed like it did in that win against Connecticut in 2009. The Duke game recently was close, but there is nothing like playing -- and beating -- the No. 1 team.

"I feel like this team and this entire university will be up to the challenge," Robinson said. "We know our fans will be out. We know they're going to bring it."

But will the Pitt players?

"I'm real confident," Patterson said. "We want another shot at them. We felt like we let one go up there."

That was a big game for Pitt.

It will be a much bigger game Wednesday night.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be hard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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