Orange Conquer Pitt – Finally
More than anything, I’m happy that the Pitt monkey is off the Orange’s back. I know I shouldn’t have this impression, but topping Pitt at the Dome for the first time in nearly eight years feels like a bigger storyline than the Orange starting 20-0 or Jim Boeheim matching Adolph Rupp on the all-time wins list or sending Pitt to an unprecedented seventh consecutive loss. I have no problem that my priorities are clouded by the fact that SU went nearly winless against Pitt in my days as an undergrad, but in no way am I saying that the record-breaking start and gaudy Boeheim win total aren’t unbelievably impressive feats. That they come in the same campaign makes this season all the more special, but I was more relieved to see the Orange get by Pitt than I was to see the news of the two accolades that were tied to the outcome.
As for the game itself, last night, I saw every style of play the Orange could go with. There was the fast, transition-based run to start the game; the high-contact absorption throughout most of the game, and the slowdown style most teams would love to impose on Syracuse, but they withstood each style and led the whole way. During the 13-0 run to start the night, I noted aloud that the scariest part about it was that Dion Waiters was on the bench the whole time (more on him later). By the way, despite Pitt’s record, I’m really glad the Orange doesn’t have to make a return trip to the Zoo. The Panthers seem to be picking it up and that home court advantage is a great equalizer.
ab Melo was harassed with an absurd amount of contact by the likes of Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor, as well as some poor moments in ball-handling, but he persevered to get his first career double-double and played 29 minutes, his highest total since the Stanford game at Madison Square Garden. He still needs to learn to not bite every time there’s a shot fake and keep the ball high on offense, but he took another big step forward, developmentally speaking. Outside of C.J. Fair’s poster dunk, there wasn’t much else to speak of from the post players tonight, but unlike some previous seasons, this team’s success won’t be dependent on getting 25 and 20 from the bigger bodies on a consistent basis.
The team is balanced and deep and all those adjectives that give us the warm fuzzies as fans, but the guard play is going to win this team’s biggest games. Scoop Jardine is playing the best basketball of his career, and it’s with a reduced scoring responsibility. He’s averaging a shade over eight points per contest over his last five games, but his ball-handling has been, well, very un-Scooplike. In that time, Jardine has dished out 38 assists against just 11 turnovers, and he’s able to let the scoring come to him rather than the other way around, which often planted him on the bench. The schedule is going to heat up with three of the next five on the road, so I’m not sure how long he’ll keep it up, but credit must absolutely be given where it’s due. It may be a cliche, but it’s still true – teams need leadership and consistency from their point guards in order to make deep runs in March, and that’s exactly what Jardine has been as of late.
The Orange have several players who can be the difference, but if I have to pick one to hit a big shot or answer a big run by the opponent, I’m pushing all my chips in with Dion Waiters as my hole cards. He was quiet for a majority of the game, but then you look up after the final horn and see that he led the team with 16 points, making big shot after big shot. His game-changing ability will sometimes get the best of him, evidenced by a drive to the hoop when it was clear he was going to have a lot of trouble finishing, but I can live with mistakes like that if he’s burying threes, drawing fouls, and playing incredible defense.
I’ve mentioned this frequently, but the schedule is playing right into the Orange’s priorities. Saturday’s blowout allowed Boeheim to substitute freely and save legs, and now the team has five days to party in the cold tub and rest all the bruises and aches from Pitt’s contact-heavy defensive style. The next opponent? Notre Dame, who just lost to…Rutgers.