5 Players to Watch in Saturday’s Pittsburgh-Syracuse ACC Clash
5 Players to Watch in Saturday's Pittsburgh-Syracuse ACC Clash
When the Pittsburgh Panthers, Syracuse Orange and Notre Dame Fighting Irish were introduced as new members of the ACC prior to the 2013-14 college basketball season, there were many who thought the addition of these three former Big East powerhouses would turn the ACC into a national wrecking ball, elevating it to the best conference in the country.
Roughly a quarter of the way through conference play, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Were it not for the Orange and Panthers, the highest-ranked ACC team in the AP Top 25 would be the Duke Blue Devils at No. 23, and they were a couple lucky bounces away from losing to Virginia at home on Monday night. Couple that with North Carolina's winless start to the conference season, and the balance of power in the ACC has shifted away from Tobacco Road faster than you can say "Chapel Hill."
Thus sets up Saturday's game between Pittsburgh (16-1, 4-0 ACC) and Syracuse (17-0, 4-0 ACC) at the Carrier Dome. These two teams are the lone remaining undefeated teams in the ACC, and overall have just one loss between them -- and that was by a single point (Pittsburgh's 44-43 loss to Cincinnati). With Virginia losing at Duke this week and falling out of a tie for first, the spotlight now only shines on the Big East invaders to see which team is the ACC's best. It's not what many would have expected a few months ago, but it's one of the best January games you'll ever see.
With that in mind, here are five players to keep an eye on Saturday as Pittsburgh and Syracuse battle for first place in the ACC.
5. Trevor Cooney, Syracuse
Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, is the second-leading scorer for the Orange at 14.1 points per game. He has seen his role dramatically increase this season. Cooney is playing 30 minutes per game now as opposed to just 11 as a freshman. Cooney shoots 42 percent from three-point range and will not be the guy Pittsburgh wants to foul late if necessary as he shoots 86 percent from the free-throw line.
4. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Tyler Ennis does a bit of everything for Syracuse, and he does it all very well. Ennis is almost always on the floor, averaging 33 minutes per game. He uses that time wisely, averaging 11.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Ennis isn't much of an outside shooting threat, but his ability to take care of the basketball is key. Ennis has 96 assists to just 23 turnovers (4.2:1 assist/turnover ratio). Ennis can score, too. He had 28 in a win over California at the Maui Invitational.
3. Talib Zanna, Pittsburgh
With Pittsburgh facing questions over how they would respond to the loss of sixth-man Durand Johnson, 6-foot-9 forward Talib Zanna delivered in a big way in Pitt's 81-74 win over Georgia Tech on Tuesday night. The senior had 22 points (one off his season-high) and nine rebounds. He is one of the rocks of the Panthers' defense and must have a good game on the offensive boards since Pitt doesn't figure to get a ton of good looks at the basket against Syracuse's 2-3 zone. Zanna averages 13 points and eight rebounds per game.
2. C.J. Fair, Syracuse
C.J. Fair usually isn't the highlight-reel type that thrills you or gets you out of your seat during a Syracuse game, but the 6-foot-8 senior from Baltimore goes about his business with a solid work ethic and produces. Fair leads Syracuse in scoring at 17.1 ppg and is second in rebounding at 5.8 rpg. Much like a modern-day Sam Perkins, Fair just gets the job done every night and is Syracuse's most reliable player. Fair has had at least six rebounds in six straight games and has scored in double figures in every game but one.
1. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh
What Fair is to Syracuse, Lamar Patterson is to the Pittsburgh Panthers -- and maybe even a little bit more. Patterson is also Pittsburgh's leading scorer (17-6 ppg), and while he rebounds a little less often than Fair (4.8 rpg), Patterson is also an excellent distributor of the basketball. Even in the low post, Patterson is able to see through traffic and find teammates for open shots. Patterson averages 4.6 assists per game and had seven in the win over Georgia Tech. At 6-foot-5, 225-pounds, Patterson isn't shy in the post but is also dangerous from outside, having hit three or more three-pointers in seven games this season.