PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh is putting together a nice little bounce back season after last year’s stunning freefall to the bottom of the Big East.
The Panthers (17-5) have a 25-point road win over Georgetown to their credit. They’ve beaten just about everybody they’re supposed to beat and been competitive in their five losses, four of them to teams who were ranked at the time.
Still, there’s a certain something missing from Pitt’s resume: an eye-catching and NCAA tournament resume-building victory. The Panthers can close that glaring loophole on Saturday against No. 6 Syracuse (18-2, 6-1).
Pitt is a remarkable 12-1 against Top 10 teams at the Petersen Events Center since it opened a decade ago. Moving that mark to 13-1 would undoubtedly catch the attention of the various computer indexes coach Jamie Dixon loves to monitor.
“We’ve got to win,” Dixon said. “That’s what we’re here to do and that’s what we need to do.”
It’s something that used to happen with great regularity for the Panthers, particularly at home. Yet Pitt is 0-2 against ranked opponents at The Pete this season, losing to Cincinnati and Marquette by a combined 16 points. For the Panthers to emerge from the middle of a very crowded – and largely very average – Big East, Dixon knows his team needs to bring some of the menace back to what has been one of the more difficult places to play in the country.
“First and foremost we’ve got to win our home games,” Dixon said. “You want to win every one of them, we haven’t. We lost two of them. We haven’t taken care of business on home court. We need to win a good game.”
The Panthers nearly did on Monday, playing tight all the way in a 64-61 road loss at No. 12 Louisville. Pitt stayed within striking distance despite making an abysmal 3 of 12 free throws and allowing the Cardinals to get loose for 10 dunks.
Not exactly the mix of efficient offense and suffocating defense that’s become the Panthers’ trademark under Dixon. The Panthers only stayed in the game thanks to 15 offensive rebounds that turned into 25 second-chance points.
Getting those kinds of numbers against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone will be difficult. The Panthers believe a little better execution getting the first shot means there won’t be a big of a need for so many second ones.
“You’ve just got to do the right thing,” forward Talib Zanna said. “If we do the right thing, it might come easy for us; just attack the zone and do what Dixon wants us to do (like) taking good shots at the right time.”
That wasn’t an issue early in the season for Zanna, who was dominant at times during the nonconference portion of the schedule. Opposing coaches raved about the 6-foot-9 junior’s development and his aggressiveness gave freshman center Steven Adams a little room to breathe and get comfortable.
All that success, however, came at a price. Zanna hasn’t been the same over the last six games. Since a 15-point effort in that 73-48 romp over the Hoyas Jan. 8, Zanna is averaging just 5.8 points and 5.3 rebounds.
The Panthers will need Zanna to rediscover some of that shooting touch to help open up the zone. If he can be effective at the high post or ducking in down low, that could free up space for Pitt’s 3-point shooters.
Dixon knows a little something about beating the Orange. Pitt is 9-3 against Syracuse under Dixon’s watch. Getting that number to 10-3 would go a long way to giving the Panthers a boost and serving notice their rebound season might turn into something even more substantial.
“Just having a chance to go at a team that’s ranked and is No. 1 in the Big East, it gives you a lot to look for,” forward Lamar Patterson said. “We have to come out strong and get that ‘W.”’