Quick, raise your hands if you thought that Pitt's game this weekend against Syracuse would be as big as it is now.
While Syracuse was expected to challenge for the ACC title this year, Pitt wasn't picked to do nearly as well. The Panthers had the look of a team that would finish somewhere around fifth or sixth this season based on the the sheer number of young players in key roles this year.
Fast forward to today and Pitt not only rolled through its non-conference schedule, but is 4-0 in the conference. The competition there has been a little weaker, but having won two road games in the ACC already has been impressive.
Pitt and Syracuse are the only two unbeaten teams left in the conference and while it's early, both are in the driver's seat for an ACC regular season title. Let's be honest - that means next to nothing right now. Two teams, including Duke, are only one game back, and everyone is within 3 1/2 games of each other.
Quite simply, this game isn't going to crown a conference champion. But the winner will be the lone unbeaten left and have at least a game up on everyone else for now.
Pitt surely will have its hands full in the game, but there's a little reason for optimism.
First, the Panthers always have played well against Syracuse - home and away. Over the past ten regular season games, Pitt is 9-1 against the Cuse, and 4-1 against them on the road. Using games from six and seven years ago is a bit irrelevant, but I think it's still important just to show the Panthers' dominance over the Orange. The sole game Syracuse won was in the 2011-12 CBI disaster season when the Orange were ranked No. 1.
The Panthers also have fared slightly better in their ACC games. Playing against better teams, Pitt has won their four ACC games by an average of 13.5 points - Syracuse is at 11.75. The Panthers are also scoring more (77.3 to 72.8), rebounding better (37.8 to 35.4), and shooting better (49% to 46%) per game than Syracuse. The Orange played a more difficult non-conference slate than the Panthers, but the fact is that, according to the numbers, Pitt matches up fairly well against them.
In addition, Syracuse has also had its fair share of close calls. A six-point win against St. Francis. Five-point wins over St. John's and Miami. Even their ten-point win over a horrendous 5-12 Boston College team was noteworthy for all the wrong reasons. Pitt just hasn't had that many close calls against average or bad teams.
And if the game comes down to free throws, Pitt even holds a slight advantage there. The Panthers are shooting 73% from the line to Syracuse's 69%.
That's not to suggest that Syracuse is going to present a major challenge. You can pretty much take your pick as to which group will give the Panthers more problems. The guards feature two underclassmen in Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis, but they combine for just over 25 points per game and Ennis leads the team in assists with 5.6 per contest. C.J. Fair and Jeremi Grant do even more scoring, averaging nearly 30 points a game and also combine for more than 12 rebounds.
It's easy to see Syracuse for the talented team they are but don't count the Panthers out in this one. If nothing else, it should be a competitive game. I'm not saying I'm ready to pick Pitt with the game on the road, but they stand more than a fighting chance to pull off the upset.
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