SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In many ways, Pitt’s loss to Syracuse on Saturday was a predictable one.
For a team as talented and as exciting as the Panthers have been all season, they’re also a young one that has yet to over come several hurdles that their first season together in the ACC will put before them.
They’ve yet to win a road game, now 0-4 on opponents’ home floors. They’ve also yet to show that they can consistently beat a well-played zone defense, failing against North Carolina’s in their ACC opener and again while facing the Orange.
Some of those things — like winning on the road — are factors that a young team could be expected to eventually overcome. Facing zones and other sagging, passive defenses that are designed to prevent penetration at the expense of allowing open 3-point shooting, well, that could continue to be an issue for the Panthers.
Then, a new problem cropped up for Pitt against Syracuse — the Orange had a ton of open looks from 3-point range. That’s something that Pitt has done a fantastic job of throughout the season and they entered play on Saturday with the No. 8 three-point field goal defense in the country. That’s something that they should be able to immediately correct.
Let’s take a look at a few of the issues that came up against Syracuse, and how quickly — if it all — they can be rectified.
BRINGING HOME A ROAD WIN
Sooner or later, Pitt will win another road game. Until they do, it’s going to be something that Jeff Capel is going to focus on with his young team.
“Everything for us is part of the process,” he said. “We have to figure out how to win on the road. That’s something that we haven’t done.”
Capel and the Pitt players thought that did what they needed to in order to prepare to handle the environment, but that the experienced Orange presented most of the problems.
“We came in last night and we shot,” Capel said. “I just think actually playing against their defense and their length. I think that’s what it was early. Again, we can’t simulate it. Out there, you see how long they are, how they’re in passing lanes, how they anticipate. Now, in saying that, I thought we got some good looks, we just missed some shots.”
Senior Jared Wilson-Frame said that the trouble shooting was allowed to leak into some other areas of the Panthers’ game, something that can definitely be a lesson for the young team going forward.
“Especially when you’ve got a young team and being on the road, a couple guys were a little bit down on themselves,” he said. “People’s faces were just bad. In situations like that, you’ve just got to get together and get a little closer as a team.”
TROUBLE WITH THE ZONE
Pitt again struggled with zone defense. This time, they shot a bit better from 3-point range than they had against Carolina, but still looked disjointed and out of sorts for most of hte game.
“Their zone took us out of any sort of rhythm,” Capel said.” We could never get into a rhythm offensively. … It’s different, because this is a different style than what we’re accustomed to playing with a lot of young guys — four guys in our starting lineup, this is their first time playing against Syracuse.
“This was a different style than we’ve played all season long and no matter how much we practice, we can’t simulate their size and their experience in the zone. It is a learning experience for us. “
What the zone was most effectively able to take away was the dribble-drive game for Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson, the bread and butter of Pitt’s offense.
“It’s hard. Me and Trey, we look to get into the paint a lot,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing that zone does to you. It’s not that easy in the paint.”
Without much in the way of a post presence, this seems like a problem that could be a recurring factor for the Panthers.
Despite not shooting all that well and having trouble with Syracuse’s zone, Pitt made a run at the end of the first half to close the gap to three points heading into the break. During that stretch was the only time all game that they were able to get out in transition and make an impact.
“We rebounded and got out into transition,” Johnson said. “We didn’t let their zone set up. That’s why were we scoring.”
The rest of the time, Pitt just didn’t have many opportunities. The Orange were shooting at a high percentage and weren’t turning the ball over. When they did miss, 7-foot-2 center Pascal Chukwu was a factor on the offensive glass.
“They do a really good job of transition defense,” Capel said. “The way they play their zone, they get back. We didn’t rebound it great.”
Pitt’s defense is a good one, and on most nights, should be able to feed the Panthers’ transition game. Saturday against the experienced Orange just wasn’t one of those nights.
VALUING THE BASKETBALL
During the early part of the second half, Pitt was able to get a bunch of stops in a row on defense, but the Panthers were also turning the ball over.
“I thought our inexperience and immaturity really hurt us in the second half,” Capel said. “I think we got five straight stops. We scored first. It was a one-point game, but then after that, in the first four minutes, we had four turnovers. Again, our inability to value the basketball really hurt us.”
“We weren’t together as a unit,” Johnson added. “They got to 50-50 balls, they rebounded. They made us turn the ball over. They just got on a run.”
After the Orange broke through, they piled on, going on a 22-4 run that ended up being the deciding factor in the game. Pitt’s defense allowed a bunch of 3-pointers — more on that in a second — and a few open backdoor cuts, but it was the play on the offensive side of the ball that stood out to Wilson-Frame.
“It was our offense, really, that was hurting us,” he said. “It’s just disappointing because we knew coming in that we could win this game if we just took care of us. When you beat yourself, I think that’s just more discouraging, than anything, period.”
Pitt has turned the ball over a lot this season, and will probably continue to do so as the two young lead guards work through their first season of college basketball, but the next time they face a zone, they should have a better handle on what not to do and should be able to be a bit more careful with the basketball.
3-POINT FG DEFENSE
Pitt came into the game as one of the top 3-point shooting defenses in the country. Syracuse came in with a mediocre shooting percentage from long range. But the Orange lit Pitt up, shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc.
What happened? Well, Pitt was packing it in against the talent Orange forwards and driving guards and hoping that low shooting percentage would hold up.
“They hit 3’s,” Capel said. “That’s something they haven’t been doing. They had 11 against Duke. We tried to play the percentages a little bit and they hurt us from the 3-point line.”
Buddy Boeheim came off the bench to hit 4 of 5 from 3-point range. Suffice to say, Pitt won’t be leaving him quite so open in the future.