UPDATING THE PANTHERS
Pitt has won two of three games since defeating West Virginia 71-66 in Morgantown on Feb. 7, the lone loss coming by a point at St. John's. The Panthers' scoring output hasn't been what it was through the game at WVU, and indeed longer, taller teams seem to hinder Pitt. SJU utilized its length and athleticism to stay in the game, then hit a twisting layup inside five seconds to pull the upset. West Virginia, in the first series meeting, actually defended the perimeter well, but didn't make enough of its own shots overall and failed to contain Pitt on the boards. It must do those two things, plus continue to get driving point/foul shot contributions from Joe Mazzulla to pull an upset and virtually lock up an NCAA Tournament berth.
West Virginia's perimeter defense will be tested, as Pitt returns leading scorer Ashton Gibbs (6-2, 190 lbs.). The guard sat out the first meeting, but recently returned against the Red Storm to score 26 points. Gibbs' strong perimeter (47 percent) and overall (44 percent) shooting will force the Mountaineer defense away from the bucket and should open better interior chances as well. Gibbs is also a solid defender and will elongate a bench (he is listed in the initial five for this Backyard Brawl) that was quite limited – though not as much as WVU's – in the first game.
Frontcourt starters Travon Woodall (5-11, 190 lbs.) and Brad Wanamaker (6-4, 210 lbs.) average seven and 12 points, respectively. Woodall, who started against WVU earlier this year, hit for 12 points on 11 shots. He also had three assists and a couple steals in a decent overall line. Wanamaker struggled on offense, turning the ball over four times but ripping WVU with nine rebounds. The Mountaineers must check him on the boards much more effectively to have a chance here.
Center Gary McGhee (6-11, 250 lbs.), seven points and eight rebounds a game, was at least limited by Deniz Kilicli in Morgantown, as the Turkey native shot well and won the head-to-head points battle. Kilicli's continued interior production looms large, as does his ability to be solid defensively, not turn the ball over and stay out of foul trouble at the Pete. If he trumps McGhee in points and keeps him off the offensive glass (the Pitt senior had five in the first match-up), West Virginia might be able to stay in the game versus one of the best rebounding teams in the nation.
The other sizeable issue is Nasir Robinson (6-5, 220 lbs.). The junior scored a team-high 15 points at WVU, making seven of 12 shots. He took just two free throws, but his eight rebounds, five on offense, were a killer. Robinson's average is about eight points and five rebounds a game – allowing him 10 above the average again won't do it. This is an interior player who doesn't take the three. Play physical and continually hound him if possible. This is likely a John Flowers assignment; as always, keep an eye on the foul situation.
|Thurs. Feb. 24
9 p.m. EST
Petersen Events Center
WVU 17-9, 8-6
Pitt 24-3, 12-2
WVU - 21
Pitt - 9
The other backcourt starter, Gilbert Brown (6-6, 215 lbs.), got to the line well, but otherwise didn't do much against WVU in the first meeting. Brown gives up some size to Cam Thoroughman, and the rugged Mountaineer defender simply wears on you during a game. Thoroughman, who is scheduled to again start, must stay physical and keep a body on Brown. Brown will step outside for shots, a difficult area to defend for Thoroughman. But he isn't an incredible shooter, and the potential mounting frustration could affect his game.
Besides Gibbs, head coach Jamie Dixon will use three main reserves, and this is where Pitt really begins to establish some size over the Mountaineers. In addition to swingman Lamar Patterson (6-5, 220 lbs.), the Panthers also utilize a pair of forwards in Dante Taylor (6-9, 240 lbs.) and Talib Zanna (6-9, 225 lbs.). Both are as tall as the tallest WVU player available and play about 12 to 15 minutes a game while averaging six and four points. Both are hot from the field, making 65 and 56 percent, respectively, and give Pitt a major edge in getting rest on the inside. Taylor averages just 2.5 points and has yet to find his shot. His play isn't a major concern, but again it gives another 15 minutes of rest of the 200 in a game.
There are no secrets here. West Virginia limited Pitt's outside shots and won the free throw battle in the first game. It lost because the Panthers dominated the boards, penetrated the lane at will and were overpowering in the final two minutes. The return of Gibbs gives Pitt a major scoring boost – he hit for 26 points in his last outing – and will force WVU's defense even farther away from the basket. The Mountaineers must continue to limit the three, stay out of foul trouble, get Mazzulla challenging the basket on drives and stay within a handful of rebounds to have a chance.
This is a very good team in a tough venue, and likely the most difficult game on WVU's regular season schedule this year. As discouraging as it is for Mountaineer fans, this game is essentially gravy barring injuries. Lose, and it was expected to happen and one turns the attention to an important contest at Rutgers and the final two home games. Win, and it's a significant upset that all but assures West Virginia an NCAA Tournament spot regardless of finish.
WVU: F Kevin Noreen (Knee), Out for Season.
West Virginia is 17-17 in true Big East road games under Bob Huggins. The total ties for the most (Gale Catlett) by any of the three WVU head coaches to lead the Mountaineers during their Big East tenure. John Beilein won 13 league road games.
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WVU's foes are averaging 58.8 points per game over the last eight contests. The program is 19-6 all-time on Feb. 24 and 494-375 all-time in February.
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West Virginia has won 79 of 91 games under Huggins in which it has outrebounded its foe. Pitt is among the best rebounding teams in the nation.
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Huggins is 3-5 versus Pitt while coaching West Virginia. He lost a pair of games to the Panthers when he was Akron's head coach. Dixon is 10-6 against the Mountaineers.
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WVU is 34-55 all-time in games played at Pitt. It has been in prime position to become the first team to win three games at the Petersen Events Center, but allowed a last-second three-pointer and a seven-point final minute rally to lose and lose in overtime, respectively, in the most recent meetings. Pitt is 15-1 at home this season, losing only to Notre Dame.
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West Virginia needs two more victories to reach 1,600 all-time in men's basketball. WVU has lost 998 games all-time. The 1,598 wins are the 22nd most in Division I basketball history.