I Remember When Syracuse vs. Pitt Used to Mean Something

(Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

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I was fortunate enough to attend last night's Pitt basketball game, a 64-53 win over Syracuse.  While it looked like a rock fight at times, the Panthers made big shots down the stretch to help them secure the win.  Coach Jeff Capel rode the starters with heavy minutes and was rewarded with four of them scoring in double-digits, a welcome sight for a team that has too often relied on scoring from one or two players.  

This was the first Pitt men's basketball game I'd attended in quite some time and I couldn't help but notice that I was more often surprised by what I saw off the court than what I saw on it.  Growing up a huge Pitt fan, Syracuse has long been an arch rival of mine.  They've earned their status as a Pitt nemesis with how often these teams have gone at it over the years.  

Jim Boeheim has been the Syracuse coach for my entire life and to be honest, what feels like since the beginning of time.  Seeing a 2-3 zone in college basketball doesn't even phase me anymore, as he continues to recruit specifically to keep using it every season.  Clashes between us and them go back to the Big East days, where every game was a hard fought battle.

This matchup takes my nostalgia beyond the Big East days as well.  It also makes me think of my time as a Pitt student.  As a student, there were three games you wanted to be a part of the Oakland Zoo for - Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse.  And I wasn't the only one that felt that way.  There was a ticket lottery you had to enter, where you would hope and pray you were lucky enough to get selected so you could attend the game.  Everyone I knew entered and it created a buzz for any student that loved the sports teams.  

I was fortunate to attend one of the Pitt- Syracuse matchups and I must apologize to Pitt fans everywhere for what I'm about to say.  It was my most memorable game as a member of the Zoo, and it was when Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis hit the half-court buzzer-beater to defeat the Panthers.  It's probably my most memorable game for how devastated I felt when it happened.  The Petersen Events Center went completely silent and all of us Pitt fans commiserated in unison.  While a defeated one, it was still a moment that I got to experience with so many other Pitt fans.

My reason for mentioning all of this is due to how drastically different an experience last night was compared to those games.  I'm being generous when I say that the arena was 20% full.  The Oakland Zoo was half filled.  No band, no cheerleaders.  Courtside seats empty.  Nobody in the upper sections.

Now I know some of this is COVID related, but the current state of the program seems to have a huge impact on the in-person experience.  The comeback the team displayed last night would've caused pandemonium in the arena in those olden days.  But instead, it led to some above-average cheering.  While Syracuse isn't as prolific of a program as they once were either, last night was still a big win for Pitt and it just didn't feel like it based off of the experience.

This isn't a PSA to get to the games, or Pack the Pete, or anything of that sort.  Like I said, it was the first game of theirs I'd attended in quite some time.  More so, this is a nostalgia post on how I long for those old times to return to this program and their fans.  

Being in person for the games when those 2000s teams were competing for the #1 spot in the country were unbelievable.  I wish that young Pitt fans, just starting their fanhood, could experience them and see how important Pitt basketball was to this city, and college basketball as a whole.  Oakland would be abuzz when Syracuse came to town, not only for the rivalry aspect, but also because of how important of a game it was.  

Last night could not have been more opposite.  If you had walked on campus, you probably wouldn't have even known there was a basketball game going on.  I hope that Pitt can return to that stature sooner rather than later.  I want all Pitt fans to be able to experience what a game day in Oakland against one of their biggest rivals used to feel like.