The Mountaineers (18-4, 7-3 Big East) have trumped all 11 foes played at home. But they have faced nothing like the blue-collar on-ball defense of the Pitt or the inside-outside presence of sixth-man spark Ronald Roman (Jr., 6-1, 180 lbs.) and Aaron Gray (Sr., 7-0, 270 lbs.). And having won 10 of their last 11 games, the Panthers (20-3, 8-1) were given a nine-day reprieve by the Big East, more time than any other foe WVU will host this season.
That's a major advantage for head coach Jamie Dixon. The fourth-year mentor has had time to dissect the game tapes and practice his team against the 1-3-1 zone and other sets utilized by West Virginia. Though the Mountaineers are a nightmare with a short prep time, WVU, like any foe, becomes much more beatable as the time increases. Unlike others, the added edge via preparation time is very great. West Virginia is certainly changing and adapting, too, but it has had less time to prepare for Pitt and just came off playing two consecutive road games and four of its last five away from home. How much of an advantage that is will not be seen until game time, though it certainly bears a thought before tip-off.
For the lineup, Pitt utilizes a base two-guard, two-forward center set that emphasizes everything Big East-like. The Panthers like to pound the ball inside to Gray, who averages a double-double at 14.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, then kick out to a pair of perimeter-based players – Ramon and Antonio Graves (Sr., 6-3, 190 lbs.), or find a slash-and-dash player like Levance Fields (Soph., 5-10, 190 lbs.). Gray is the showcase player, and one who can finish inside and defends the paint well while playing unselfishly within undoubtedly the most balanced lineup in the Big East; Pitt's is one that can score in multiple ways – running, playing a rough-and-tumble style or driving to the basket to draw fouls – while also defending well.
Ramon has hit 49 of 105 3-pointers. That 46.7% clip – which jumps to 51% in Big East play – pairs with Graves' 44.4 on 32 of 72 shooting. Ramon, especially, has been the proverbial thorn in the side for West Virginia, not so much in terms of points, but in hitting key shots when the Mountaineers have threatened. The outside prowess partially comes from getting open looks because of Gray. But the overall accuracy has also forced teams to shrug off Gray at times, whose domination inside has allowed him to make nearly 60% of his shots from the floor and get to the line for 95 shots. He also has 38 blocks and 11 steals and a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, a rarity for a player of his size.
Fields, a rugged point player like Carl Krauser who harnesses himself much more effectively, likes to open up Ramon and Graves via drives down the middle. He can have a Bull vs. China Shop mentality at times, when his Brooklyn street style takes over and he tries too hard to push the ball to the rim. He has bettered this over the offseason and through 23 games this year, but when it gets tight, WVU should expect the second-year player to drive hard and look to score or kick it after getting hung up in the air. Fields' most-likely bailouts inside are forwards Mike Cook (Jr., 6-4, 220 lbs.) and Levon Kendall (Sr., 6-10, 225 lbs.), who can crash as well as any other twosome in the league but has fouled out three times and seen his minutes diminish because of foul trouble. Kendall is a savvy player who sneaks in for some putback chances and who plays well off Gray. Cook, a Philadelphia native who transferred from East Carolina, can create his own shot and is really more of a true three-player in that he does a bit of everything.
Pitt will also run out three other players who have appeared in every game. Sam Young (Soph., 6-6, 215 lbs.) Keith Benjamin (Jr., 6-2, 190 lbs.) and Tyrell Biggs (Soph., 6-8, 245 lbs.) have all averaged at least 12-plus minutes per game this season, though Biggs' time has decreased to an 8.8-minute average in league play. None average any more than Young's five points per game – probably due to the lack of shots to go around – but the few minutes of rest that they allow Dixon to steal without a noticeable drop-off has enabled no starter to average any more than 29 minutes per game. The legs, fresher already that WVU's via the longer bench, will be especially good Wednesday after the nine-day layoff. It's a luxury only the deepest of teams can have, and Pitt is relishing in their finest lineup in years.
The questions are myriad. Can West Virginia defend its home floor against the best team in the conference? How much will Pitt's near fortnight of rest and short travel help it? The Panthers have played nothing close to what a patient John Beilein-coached team can toss at it, especially if WVU selects its times to run and push well. But will the Mountaineers keep their composure in the face of such talent and depth? WVU hasn't, of yet, even defeated a team in the top half of the Big East standings. Now it plays one that has enough veterans and pure talent to go to the Final Four, according to Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun.
|Wed Feb 7|
WVU 18-4, 7-3
Pitt 20-3, 8-1
|Sirius Channel: 161|
WVU - 40
Pitt - 3
Also, due to injuries and Pitt's depth, Beilein will have to steal some minutes in the game. His substitution patterns have been more sporadic of late, but when he is milking the minutes he has dead-on. Example: Beilein sat Nichols for one minute last game just before a televised timeout. That stretched the rest period to well over five minutes of actual time and gave WVU a fresher point guard for the rest of the game, as the junior was never pulled again.
The Panthers will also likely press the issue – literally. Its depth and one-on-one abilities far exceed that of West Virginia. And even if Pitt doesn't create many turnovers, the full court pressure forces WVU to work the ball upcourt and takes 10 seconds off the shot clock. It has worked for other foes, and Dixon will certainly employ it in the basketball Backyard Brawl. The Mountaineers handled the pressure of Seton Hall well, but the length was not there. Too, West Virginia can ill afford the scoring and field goal droughts it had in its last two games, though those concerns are balanced by playing at home.
The keys are to make Gray earns his points and not give up anything too easily on defense. Pitt will score; there are too many weapons to reason otherwise. But if it must earn it, and WVU plays controlled and stays out of foul trouble, then the Panthers won't use the offense to feed their defense. This isn't the kind of team that wants to guard for a full 35 seconds. They can do it, and will if energized. But expect a few solid cuts here and there for buckets inside, depending upon how Pitt wants to defend West Virginia when center Jamie Smalligan is in the game. Will it keep Gray in the paint with a zone defense or a junk set like the Pirates tried, or will it allow the center to roam out to the arc? Pitt left Kevin Pittsnogle open at the Pete in 2005, and it got burned.
On offense, controlling the clock and forcing Pitt to match twos with WVU's threes is major. The Mountaineers could use a good shooting night, obviously, but simply playing within itself and letting the offense create the shots while knowing when to run the floor for a quick-finishing two or a pass out to an open wing (read: Frank Young on the right) is an even larger issue. Don't get sucked into a fast game, a case of "Be quick; Don't hurry." And in the first five minutes, hang on, because Dixon, meddling and mending with the open period, could toss a lot of things at a younger squad.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla (Deep thigh bruise) Game-time Decision, Devan Bawinkel (hand fracture) Out.
Pitt has matched its best start in Big East history in wining eight of its first nine. It has 20 wins for the sixth consecutive season. The school has 13 20-win seasons all-time. West Virginia has 23 and seven others with 19 wins. The Mountaineers lead the all-time series 92-79 and have won three of the last five and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. Pitt has lost by the round of 16 in each of its appearances under Dixon and is 6-22 all-time at the WVU Coliseum. Only one Pitt coach has won even two games at the 14,000-seat arena.
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Pitt is 4-0 in league road games this year and 7-2 away from the Petersen Events Center. It is 77-7 all-time at the facility; WVU is 1-2 there. The Panthers have lost their last two in Morgantown. The school likes to tout its ranking as one of the top three programs over the last six years. Six is a strange number, undoubtedly chosen to maximize performance. Second, all the other top 10 teams save Southern Illinois advanced past the Sweet 16 at some point during that stretch.
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In a similar vein, Dixon is listed under a heading in the Pitt press release as "among the fastest to 100 wins in NCAA Division I history." The list then reads that Dixon has 96 wins. Interesting. The coach ranked right in front of him, winning 100 of his first 123: West Virginia native Clair Bee, who accomplished the feat at Rider and Long Island.
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The two teams rank one-two nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio with Pitt owning a 1.58 mark to WVU's 1.53. This will be a key stat again, especially for the Mountaineers, who cannot turn the ball over and expect to win. Pitt's school record is 1.26.
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Pitt has limited eight of nine Big East opponents, 10 of its last 11 opponents and 20 of its 23 total opponents under 70 points. WVU is second to Pitt in the league in scoring defense.
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Pitt guard Geoff Rizk is a graduate of The Hun School of Princeton. The 6-0, 175-pound freshman is a native of Franklin Lakes, N.J. The private boarding school, complete with a headmaster, is located in Princeton, N.J. and has students from 16 states and nine countries; 47 of its 115-member faculty hold Master's Degrees. In boasting of recent graduates and their collegiate choices, Pitt rival Penn State was noted. Pitt wasn't. Cost for a day student: Just more than $25,000 per year. "How can you have any pudding, if you don't eat your meat!"