SCOUTING THE PANTHERS
Pitt and West Virginia renew their annual rivalry on the hardwood yet again, with the beautiful Peterson Events Center playing host to the first of two matchups between the old foes over the next few weeks.
The Panthers, ranked No. 21 and 25 in this week's major polls, have been hit hard this season by the injury bug, yet somehow still find themselves right in the middle of the crowded Big East Conference race with West Virginia and a host of other schools hovering within a game or two of .500.
With preseason starters Levance Fields and Mike Cook both missing extensive action due to injuries, a number of Panthers have filled in nicely throughout the lineup. Leading the way is junior forward Sam Young. Long a thorn in the side of West Virginia, Young is finally putting it together to hurt teams other than the Mountaineers this season. Young leads Pitt in scoring with an average of 18.1 points per game, but has gone a combined 12-33 in his past two games from the field.
Young gets plenty of scoring help inside from fabulous freshman DeJuan Blair, a former recruiting target of the Mountaineers as well as current head coach Bob Huggins while he was at Kansas State. Blair, a candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year, has posted seven double-doubles thus far in his rookie campaign, including a symmetrical 13-point, 13-rebound performance in Saturday's loss at UConn. Redshirt freshman forward Gilbert Brown has also come on lately, posting an average of eight points per contest in his last 10 games.
Despite the loss of Fields, a second-year full-time starter for head coach Jamie Dixon, the Panther backcourt is anything but inexperienced. Senior Ronald Ramon has slid over from his more natural shooting guard spot to man the point in Fields' absence, and while his individual offensive numbers may have taken a dip as a result, his steady play at the point is a big reason why the Panthers are eyeing a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Ramon has dished out 58 assists over his past 10 games, and has proven to be more than capable over the years of hitting the timely outside shot, especially against WVU.
Fellow senior Keith Benjamin is averaging better than 12 points per outing, and leads Pitt with 36 made three-point field goals on the season. Big man Tyrell Biggs is the main threat off the Panther bench. One season ago in Pittsburgh, Biggs' energy and hustle sparked the Panthers in a ferocious second-half rally to down the Mountaineers.
Anytime a Jamie Dixon-coached team takes the court, a defense-first mentality reigns supreme. The Panthers are giving up just 63 points per game while holding opponents to 40 percent shooting from the field. That's not exactly great news for a West Virginia team that has struggled to shoot the ball consistently in recent weeks.
|Thurs Feb 7
Peterson Events Center
WVU 16-6, 5-4
Pitt 17-5, 5-4
West Virginia 92-81
WVU - 41
Pitt - 22
Limiting Blair's effectiveness in the post is also a big key for West Virginia. Similarly-built bigs such as Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Oklahoma's Blake Griffin have bothered the Mountaineers all season long, and while Blair's ability isn't quite on the level of those two potential All-Americans just yet, he still presents a difficult matchup on the block for WVU.
Finding a way to score the ball against Dixon's rugged defense, and limiting the two-headed monster of Blair and Young will go a long way in deciding whether or not the Mountaineers can pull off an upset in the Steel City. West Virginia has not won in Pittsburgh since the 2005 regular season.
WVU: Joe Alexander (Groin) Probable
Pitt: Mike Cook (Knee) Out; Levance Fields (Foot) Out
As if winning on the road in the Big East isn't tough enough, the Mountaineers must go into one of the most daunting atmospheres not only in the conference, but the country. Since opening "The Pete" six seasons ago, Pitt holds a dominating 92-9 record inside the state of the art arena. That mark includes a 36-8 showing in Big East play.
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The Panthers have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six seasons, making them one of just 12 teams in college basketball to hold that distinction. Surprisingly, Pitt is the only Big East team with such a streak.
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Benjamin hails from Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High School, the same school which currently boasts 2008 Mountaineer recruit Kevin Jones. The WVU recruiting ties don't end there, however, as Pitt assistant coach Orlando Antigua is the brother of St. Raymond's mentor Oliver Antigua. Darryl "Truck" Bryant, another Mountaineer recruit, is a senior point guard for the younger Antigua.
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Huggins is 0-2 against the Panthers in his head coaching career. During his stint at Akron, Huggins lost games against ranked Pitt teams in back-to-back seasons by a combined four points.