Pitt-Syracuse could be the game to watch

It’s apropos that this year’s ACC tournament finds itself in the home arena of a longtime Big East power.

After all, it’s two of the ACC’s recent imports from that since-reconfigured conference that have as much to play for as anyone in this year’s event.

There’s a strong case to be made that Wednesday’s quadrupleheader opener between eighth-seeded Pittsburgh and ninth-seeded Syracuse is the most significant game of the tournament from a national perspective.

North Carolina and Virginia could stake claims to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with strong performances this week. Miami could secure its second conference title in four years. Duke and Notre Dame can improve their national seeding as well.

That’s all swell. One of those five (OK, one of those first three) is likely to take home a trophy come Saturday night, but all of them know they have accomplished more than enough to earn a place in the field of 68.

The same can’t be said of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, both of which could have made life considerably easier by winning one game – any game – in the final week of the regular season. Neither did.

Pittsburgh (20-10) appeared on stable footing after its Feb. 28 defeat of Duke, only to drop back-to-back games at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Syracuse (19-12) also stumbled twice on the road, falling at North Carolina and Florida State.

The Panthers swept the season series from the Orange, and it’s understandable that there might be a perception Syracuse needs this game more than Pittsburgh. But it’s a season of 30-plus games, not two, and Jim Boeheim’s bunch still enters the week with a better overall profile than the Panthers.

The biggest differentiator? Syracuse’s quality performances away from the Carrier against high-end teams, including a defeat of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and an early-season triumph over Texas A&M on a neutral floor.

That’s not to say both sides of this Big East-turned-ACC brawl might not require a triumph to secure an optimal outcome Selection Sunday. But Syracuse possesses a little wiggle room, while Pittsburgh probably does not.

There are implications for the rest of the day as well, only they’re not so immediate. Duke (22-9) is playing for seeding, and an early exit here could ultimately force the Blue Devils off the East Coast for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. They’ll face N.C. State (16-16), which required a late push to finish off Wake Forest in the opening round.

The night session features teams that remain on the periphery of the field, at least for now. Georgia Tech (18-13) played well down the stretch, flustering Pittsburgh and Florida State while also accelerating Clemson’s dip from the top third of the league.

The Yellow Jackets draw Clemson again, and it will be little surprise if the teams turn to Marcus Georges-Hunt and Jaron Blossomgame, respectively, to jump-start what they hope will be an extended stay.

Florida State (19-12) also sits on the outside of the field, and there was little for the Seminoles to gain from Tuesday’s 88-66 defeat of Boston College besides earning an extra game. They’ll face Virginia Tech (18-13), an unquestionably improved outfit but one with minimal at-large hopes thanks to a poor nonconference schedule.

While all three of those games have their merits, the highlight remains Pittsburgh-Syracuse. The Panthers have dropped six of nine since the start of February, but one of those triumphs came at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 20 as Jamel Artis scored 21 points. The Orange got only two players in double figures that day, with Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson combining to shoot 1 of 13 from 3-point range.

Syracuse is reliant on its outside shooting to have a chance against good teams (and some poor ones) this season, and Pittsburgh has twice stymied the Orange from the perimeter. If the Panthers can do it again, there’s a decent shot they’ll have it to thank for a return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.