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Can Pitt Show Improvement Against the Syracuse Zone in Second Meeting?

Can Pitt Show Improvement Against the Syracuse Zone in Second Meeting?

PITTSBURGH — Pitt and Syracuse, a pair of ‘Old Big East’ rivals, meet up once again on the hardwood on Wednesday, and it probably doesn’t have the same feel as past battles.

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This game even feels a lot different than the first meeting back on Jan. 25. Pitt was 4-4 in ACC play, while the Orange came into the game-winning their last four games. Two teams that were trying to catapult higher up in the conference standings and make a push for the NCAA tournament.

Now, a month later, Pitt (15-13, 6-11 ACC) has lost seven of its last nine, and Syracuse (15-12, 8-8) has dropped five of its previous seven games, and both teams are eliminated from the NCAA tournament barring a historic run in the conference tournament.

But this game still means something to both programs who have played each other 117 times. And Pitt wants to get the monkey off of its back, as they have lost six straight games to the Orange (the last win was Feb. 11, 2017).

However, it’s not going to be an easy task for Jeff Capel and his squad. They have struggled mightily against zone defenses this season, and Syracuse will show their storied 2-3 look the entire 40-minutes.

In the first meeting, Pitt fell behind the eight-ball on the offensive end because leading scorer Justin Champagnie was charged with two fouls in the opening minutes of the game. The freshman is the one player on the Panthers roster that has the skillset and savviness to take some swings in the middle of the 2-3 zone. In 25 minutes with Champagnie on the court, Pitt had a seven-point advantage against Syracuse back in January.

Champagnie leads Pitt this year with 12.3 points per game (sixth among ACC freshmen) and 7.1 rebounds per game (third among ACC newcomers).

For a young Panthers squad, with that experience under their belt, Jeff Capel thinks that it will pay dividends the second time around, especially on the offensive end.

“Well, I thought it took us a while to get used to it,” Capel said about the zone. “There’s nothing we can do in practice to simulate it. We don’t have the size; we don’t have the instincts of it, we don’t know it like (Syracuse) knows it. It’s there’s, and no one else plays it like them.”

Pitt scored just 21 points in that first half and responded with a 40-point second half.

“I thought we got better movement (in the second half),” Capel said. “I thought we penetrated the zone, the ball didn’t stick, we didn’t just go east to west, and I thought we utilized more of the court. … And then we were able to make some shots; I think sometimes it’s that simple.”

That’s really what a game like this boils down to for this Pitt team. They’ve got to have the confidence to step up and make perimeter jump shots throughout the game when things aren’t flowing perfectly. Both teams only made five 3s in the first meeting. But Syracuse made more shots in the crucial moments.

Pitt also has seen some offensive promise from forward Terrell Brown. He’s shown the ability as of late that he’s capable of stepping in and knocking down the foul-line extended jumper. Brown has also improved his finishing around the rim, which could be helpful on dump-offs from the likes of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens.

“I think it starts in practice,” Johnson said of Brown’s play. “When he starts dunking on people. He’s just catching the ball and being relentless. … And having a ton of confidence.”

Another Panther looking to have an impact in this game, probably more than anyone, is Ryan Murphy. Murphy made two of his seven attempts from long-range on his first trip to the Carrier Dome. In the four games before that game, Murphy had made nine 3s, but in his five games since the game against the Orange, he has yet to make a 3-point attempt on just seven shots.

Murphy’s struggles have been well-documented, but it seems like this is a game where he could get back on the right track.

“We’re just encouraging (Murphy) to take good shots, being ready to shoot,” Capel said. “That’s one of the big things. Your shot preparation and all of those things. … He’s gotten some clean looks; he just hasn’t made them.”

It will also be interesting to see if Johnson and McGowens play with more controlled confidence this time around against the zone.

“We had a couple of fast breaks that we took,” Johnson added about the first meeting. “We didn’t let the defense set up; we were moving the ball, the ball wasn’t stagnant.”

But regardless of what shots do or don’t go in, Pitt and Capel are going to put their hard hats on and try to step up on the other side of the ball.

Coming into that first meeting, Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes had been leading the league in scoring, and Pitt really highlighted him on the scouting report. But Pitt did a solid job on Hughes for most of the game, especially in the first half where he was held scoreless.

Luckily for the Orange, they had other guys step up and knock down a ton of shots. Buddy Boeheim scored 18 of his game-high 21 points in that first half. Marek Dolezaj added 17 points and seven rebounds while playing the second fiddle.

For Capel, the defensive change in the second half was simple.

“Really, the adjustment that we made was that we put Au’Diese (Toney) on Elijah (Hughes) to start, and then we put Au’Diese on Buddy (Boeheim) in the second half,” Capel said. “That was the difference.”

Toney has taken over as the Panthers’ best perimeter defender, and it hasn’t been close. One of Pitt’s other guards are going to have to take it personally on Wednesday and lock in on either Boeheim or Hughes, whichever one Toney isn’t guarding.

In Syracuse’s 79-72 win on Saturday against Georgia Tech, Hughes and Dolezaj led the Orange, scoring 20 points apiece.

But Capel also alluded to the fact that Syracuse and its Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim will make their own share of adjustments this time around.

Wednesday is senior night for Pitt’s Kene Chukwuka, Eric Hamilton, Anthony Starzynski and Samson George. The game is a 7 p.m. tip and will be televised on ACCN.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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