Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pitarresi: Some SU opponents more than lucky

Maybe these guys are lucky, or maybe they know what they’re doing.


Syracuse University’s basketball team has lost two games this season, to Pittsburgh and Louisville, and both defeats technically were upsets. SU was ranked fifth in the nation and Pitt was unranked when the Panthers won 82-72 Jan. 2. The Orange were ranked second and Louisville was unranked when the Cardinals won 66-60 Sunday.


Technically upsets, yeah, but as Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after Sunday’s game, this is the Big East. There are a lot of good teams. And SU being defeated by Jamie Dixon’s Panthers or Pitino’s Cardinals is hardly unusual. The Orange have not had a lot of success against either team in recent years. Pitt has won seven of its last eight games with SU since 2006. Louisville has won six in a row since 2007.


Those two teams certainly have not been intimidated by the Orange. Nor has Villanova. The Wildcats, who will visit a sold out Carrier Dome Feb. 27, seven of their last nine games against SU.


Why have Pitt, Louisville, and Villanova done so well against SU? It’s not luck. These are consistently strong programs, and so is SU. Sometimes streaks just happen. But Dixon, Pitino and Villanova’s Jay Wright are very good coaches who have well-prepared, talented players. And, maybe the biggest thing, they have learned to attack Jim Boeheim’s signature 2-3 defense in creative ways.


The 2-3 has proved itself. It is a weapon that SU uses well, and it throws many teams into confusion, and reduces others to playing simplistic, uninspired basketball. However, these guys have found ways to crack it, more than one, since they don’t use the same method every time down the court. They make the zone move, get the ball into the lane and at the high post consistently, and get a good number of high percentage shots.


It’s going to be interesting to see how Villanova attacks the zone on that big day at the end of the month, with nearly 35,000 people all but blowing the roof off the Dome.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pitarresi: SU zone deflates opponents


By now, it is obvious to everyone, or should be, as Andy Rautins sort of lectured me a couple of weeks ago, that this season’s Syracuse University’s basketball defense is the Orange’s best in a long time.


Coach Jim Boeheim has been criticized at times for his insistence on playing the 2-3 zone, which he does most of the time and this year all but exclusively. Hey, why shouldn’t he? It works! It is working especially well this season because the guards move very well, the big men are getting bodies on people and blocking shots, and the traps along the sidelines and in the corners are creating a lot of turnovers.


It also works because many of SU’s opponents seem to have no idea how to attack it. Sunday, Cincinnati got inside early against the Orange, then seemed to forget about that. The Bearcats did absolutely nothing to break down the zone, ran the shot clock down to the nub several times, and the last 10 minutes of the game settled for long jump shot after long jump shot, which they didn’t make.


  Cinci did noting to make the SU zone move, especially to get the big men to defend aggressively, which is a big key. If you are going to just pass the ball around the outside with a man standing still at the high post, you have to snap the ball. The Bearcats kind of threw the ball around half-heartedly and seemed to hope that some SU player or other would forget to face up.


It’s amazing. Maybe teams can’t play against zones because they don’t see them often or because it forces them into a style they are uncomfortable with, but, geez, you have to be prepared. Maybe that’s why long-time Big East teams like Connecticut, Villanova, and Pittsburgh do a better job of attacking the defense. They’ve seen it often. Louisville, too, probably because Rick Pitino has been around a long time, and is a former Boeheim assistant.


Watch those teams against the zone. Win or lose, I guarantee you they will be creative and won’t settle for jump shots the way Cincinnati and so many other teams have.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pitarresi: Colts will win; Graham might have been the best


My Super Bowl prediction:


Indianapolis Colts 37, New Orleans Saints 24


If Thomas R. Proctor High’s Will Smith and his friends don’t put Peyton Manning on his back three or four times and create a couple turnovers, they are going to get cut up. I don’t put much stock in saying this guy or that guy is the best ever, but the Colts star certainly is one of the most productive quarterbacks of all time. He has tremendous physical skills, an impressive quarterback demeanor, and prepares for and thinks the game about as well as everyone ever did.


It helps Manning that he has at least four very skilled receivers. You can shut down one good pass catcher, maybe even two, but you can’t shut down four. At least, I don’t think so. And the Saints have been leaky on defense through 18 games as it is.


New Orleans is very good on offense, but the Colts are better on both sides of the ball. Drew Brees is an excellent quarterback, but who would you pick, him or Manning? That’s a rhetorical question.


I’d love to see Will Smith get a Super Bowl ring. He’s been a great player in high school, at Ohio State, and with the Saints, and he’s always remembered his home town and old friends. I just don’t think it’s going to happen unless he and the rest of the defense have a great game, or Brees and his receivers play out of their minds.  


As an aside, there was discussion recently on a national sports radio talk show about who might be the best quarterback of all time. Manning was mentioned, along with Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Johnny Unitas. Not a bad group, but here is a more complete list, and, yes, it reaches back to the era of leather helmets:


Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bobby Lane, Norm VanBrocklin, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach – one of the toughest ever, mentally and physically – Steve Young, maybe Jim Kelly and Troy Aikman. A quarterback’s job is to lead his team to victory, and those guys did, many times.


So did this guy, who somehow doesn’t seem to come up much in conversation any more: Otto Graham. He quarterbacked the Browns in 10 consecutive championships games in the All-American Conference and National Football League, and won seven of them. In 1954, he ran for three touchdowns and threw for three more in a 56-10 title game rout of the Detroit Lions. Again, I’m not sure I believe in “the greatest of all time,” but if you held a gun to my head I think I’d have to pick Graham, even if he last played more than a half century ago.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pitarresi: Who missed Garcon? Good for Will Smith

Pierre Garcon, a Division III player in college, catches 11 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown as the Colts get the best of the Jets in the AFC championship game.


Who missed that guy? Garcon played at Norwich University, not a small college power in recent years, then Mount Union, which certainly has been. But still, how did a guy with such obvious physical gifts get missed by 120 or so major college programs and a couple hundred more in I-AA and even Division II?


Whatever. Garcon is terrific. Not that it hurts to have Peyton Manning throwing the ball to you. The Jets had Manning rattled early, but the Colts offense managed to pull everything together. Garcon and Austin Collie, another receiver with a modest pedigree – a rookie and fourth-round draft choice from Brigham Young – who caught seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, were the stars of the game. That is, if you don’t count Manning, who is one of the all-time greats, no matter what happens Feb. 7 in Miami.


 And how about Utica’s Will Smith and his New Orleans Saints going to the Super Bowl? Good for Will, who played a sold second half, and made a huge play stripping the ball from Percy Harvin, in his team’s overtime victory over the Vikings. I feel bad for Brett Favre, who I’ve generally admired for his toughness and all-out style, but he is the NFL’s all-time leader in, not just interceptions, but stupid interceptions. Throwing the ball across your body and across the field in desperation, no matter how much of a rocket arm you still have, getting picked off, and killing your team’s chance for a winning field goal is just crazy. And he had played very well up till then. Inexplicable. You can’t do that.


Favre is, like Manning, one of the best ever at his position, but his sometimes self-destructive propensity to gamble came back and bit  him hard Sunday.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pitarresi: Jackson, Onuaku make a defensive difference


It was fine road trip by the Syracuse University basketball team, winning three in a row on the road.


The victory at Notre Dame might have been most impressive. The Irish aren’t a great team, but they were playing on their floor, led by one of the Big East’s top players, Luke Harangody.


Harangody got his points (31) and rebounds (14), as he almost always does, but SU won going away. The best thing about it was how the Orange responded after their 10-point lead was whittled down to just two with 9:47 to play. They pulled away little by little, and put the game away. There was the danger of a fold up there, and the SU players didn’t let it happen.


Notre Dame obviously got inside the SU zone pretty well – 26 points in the paint, and you’d think other Big East teams will notice how Harangody was deployed in an unorthodox way on the baseline behind the 2-3 setup – but that defense has been pretty good all season. Opponents are shooting just 38 percent against SU, which leads the nation at the other end of the floor, hitting 53 percent. A lot has been made of the zone’s new-found activity and “length,” and that sure helps, but another reason for the defensive success is sheer bulk.


Wes Johnson is, admittedly, a slim 6-feet-7 (not likely) and 205 pounds (doubtful), and is a great athlete and sensational leaper who is second on the team with 35 blocks. But Rick Jackson (6-9, 240) who has 37 blocks, and Arinze Onuaku (6-9, 261) are true hulks. They make it very difficult for opposing big men whether they block shots or not, simply by taking up room. Really, big guys or guards, anyone who is able to get inside of the SU zone still has to deal with two very large bodies that actually move pretty well. A great many times, they are forced to take off-balance shots or put up weak attempts.


No one ever seems to say Jackson and Onuaku are outstanding defensive players, and maybe they aren’t, but they don’t have to be. They cause problems in there for the opposition, and they do make a defensive difference.


There is a long way to go, and there a lot of very good teams in the Big East, but Jackson and Onuaku are making a big difference on defense.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pitarresi: Cowboys' Austin a good interview

I don’t get Jim Rome much of the time.


The sports talk radio host obviously has a large following, but I have to believe few of his fans are in my age group or with my point of view in it. And, really, I often have a difficult time wading through the jargon he uses and figuring out what exactly it is he is talking about.


But, Rome can be good, especially conducting interviews. He might not ask too many tough questions, or maybe any but he does a good job of getting people to reveal themselves. Today (Tuesday), he spoke with Miles Austin, the Dallas Cowboys’ fourth-year free agent receiver from Monmouth University who has had a sensational, Pro Bowl season – 81 catches, 1,320 yards, 11 touchdowns.


I’ve seen only bits and pieces of Cowboy games this season, and a just few everyday catches by Austin, but the interview made me a fan in the space of five minutes. Austin came across as serious but personable, and modest, genuine, team-oriented. He even tossed bouquets to his old school a couple of times. These are all things we have learned not to expect from top-flight NFL receivers.


There was no boasting, no trash talk, no sense that the world revolved around Miles Austin, yet he still had a sense of humor and had interesting things to say. Maybe there are more like him than we know, but his attitude just jumped out at me. Pretty refreshing.


 So, good luck Miles Austin in the NFL playoffs.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Pitarresi: Pitt is tough on SU

Saturday, January 02, 2010

If you were surprised by Pittsburgh’s 82-72 upset of fifth-ranked and previously unbeaten Syracuse today, maybe you shouldn’t have been.

If you’ve watched the Panthers in recent years, you had to expect a dogfight, even with four of their top players from last season gone.

Why? Because Jamie Dixon is the coach of the Panthers and he is just tremendous at getting his team to play physical, defensive, possession-by-possession basketball. Not that there is anything wrong with SU. If you start 13-0, beating California, North Carolina and Florida along the way, you’re pretty good.

You get the idea, however, that SU is not comfortable playing Pitt, or being forced into Pitt’s style. The Panthers have beaten the Orange eight times in 10 games since Dixon became the coach in 2003. Jim Boeheim said his team has to become more physical, and that’s right, because the Big East is a physical league.

Hey, if Pitt doesn’t make 10 of 24 3-pointers and SU doesn’t shoot a miserable 1 of 13 from the same distance, or if Orange big men Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson scored more than two points between them in the second half, maybe we wouldn’t be talking about how tough the Panthers are. Still, the Orange, as talented as they are, can take a lesson from the Panthers.

Bowl hysteria

It’s been tough keeping up with all the bowl games.

There are so many of them, I’ve found myself checking out this one for five minutes, that one for 10, another for two. One that held my attention for a while, though, was Penn State and LSU in the Capital One Bowl. And I wanted Penn State, because it’s great to see a Northern team beat the SEC.

But, geez, I hated that personal foul penalty on LSU’s Lyle Hitt as the Tigers were driving to set up for a possible winning field field goal in the waning seconds. Hitt pulled Penn State’s Navarro Bowman off teammate Brandon LaFell after he was tackled. Bowman was obviously intentionally lying on top of LaFell, trying to get more time off the clock before the ball could be spotted for the next play. Hitt wasn’t gentle about it, but it wasn’t a dirty play by any means. A flag was thrown anyway, Hitt was given a personal foul, LSU was penalized back to its 36-yard line, and if the Tigers had any chance to win, it was badly reduced. Two plays later, it was all over.

I don’t blame Hitt one bit from pulling Bowman off the pile. How long was he going to have to wait for the ball to be spotted? And, Bowman’s play, while pretty sly, is not exactly in the spirit of the game.

Did Penn State deserve to win? Yeah, LSU deserved a shot at the end, too. An official threw a flag and didn’t let the game be decided by the players, That’s too bad.