The Mountaineers (20-9, 9-7) are tied with the Panthers (21-8, 9-7) for sixth in the Big East, with Pitt owning the tiebreaker via a head-to-head win. WVU must even that mark and win its 93rd Backyard Brawl in 175 meetings for it to remain in viable contention for an NCAA Tournament berth. A victory sets up West Virginia for a likely 3-0 finish, with the regular season finale at St. John's and a winnable opening round conference tourney game. A defeat could force it to play Villanova or another strong foe, even with a decision over the Red Storm – leading to a 21-11 final mark which would likely prove not enough for a third NCAA bid in four seasons.
UPDATING THE PANTHERS
Pitt has split its six games since knocking off West Virginia on a last-second 3-pointer on Feb. 7. The three losses – Marquette, Notre Dame and Louisville – were to ranked teams, though the Panthers were threatened at Syracuse before rallying from 11 down inside the final media timeout to beat the Orange 82-79 in the Carrier Dome. Neither squad has found a rhythm of late, WVU having won four of six with the pair of losses coming to the only solid teams it faced.
The return of guard Levance Fields hasn't boosted Pitt as much as some pundits believed it would. Fields, who had a broken foot and missed much of the season, is averaging 10.9 points and has hit for nearly that average in his three most recent starts. But Fields has taken 31 shots and made just eight, creating chances for opponents off misses. He distributes well (the junior tallied five assists at Syracuse) and is deadly from the foul line. West Virginia will need to entice Fields into substandard shots, then attack the rim for potential leak outs and scores.
Pitt continues to play balanced basketball, with forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair averaging 18.2 and 12.0 points per game. No starter has a mean of fewer than eight points per contest, meaning the starting lineup alone accounts for nearly 60 points. Add in Gilbert Brown and Tyrell Biggs and Pitt has the ability to produce points and minutes without a major drop-off when head coach Jamie Dixon goes to the bench. WVU limited Blair in the first meeting, and must again slow the Panthers on the interior to have a chance. The game will likely be marked by another defensive struggle, with points at a premium. That pace could favor Pitt, and the Mountaineers continue to struggle when failing to score more than 60 points. WVU is 9-1 in league play (79-71 at Connecticut) when scoring more than 60 and 0-7 when it doesn't.
Just two Panthers – Young and Keith Benjamin – reached 10 points against West Virginia in the first meeting. It was a prime example of the type of defense the Mountaineers are capable of playing. But because West Virginia left 10 points at the line on seven of 17 shooting, it struggled to gain any type of lead, or force Pitt to respect it from the stripe. On WVU's last possession, for example, Pitt fouled Alex Ruoff rather than give him any type of decent look. The junior missed the first, giving the Panthers the chance to win it with a three. Unlike in other recent series games, West Virginia wasn't dominated, or even controlled, in any area of play. It held its own on the boards, in assist-to-turnover ratio and athletically. The issue was simply free throw shooting and some lapses in judgment.
|Mon March 3
WVU 20-9, 9-7
Pitt 21-8, 9-7
|Sirius Channel: 107|
Pitt - 24
WVU - 42
Both teams will go to their strengths, and it might come down to which is mentally able to make more plays. That edge could go to West Virginia, whose entire focus is on this game. Pitt has virtually locked up an NCAA bid, and can coast into the postseason. WVU has little to lose, making it a very dangerous team. Its fortitude seems to have improved after the lay-down losses to Cincinnati and Villanova, as it continued to attack UConn and eventually rallied from a 17-point deficit to get within three before wilting. The Mountaineers must prove that's not a one-game aberration, however. With a supportive crowd and the emotion of the home finale', that should not be a problem. If it is, this year's team deserves the NIT bid it will be saddled with if Pitt completes a sweep for the second straight year.
Pitt: Mike Cook (knee) Out
Darris Nichols and Jamie Smalligan will be the seniors honored before the game. Nichols has played more minutes and more games than any player in school history. Redshirt junior Ted Talkington, recently accepted into the WVU medical school, will also be honored because he has decided to forgo his final season of eligibility to concentrate on academics. Managers Mark Richmond, Joel Pinto and Kota Mizuno and athletic trainer Derek DeProspero will also be honored.
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WVU has won three consecutive Senior Night games, including a 67-62 win over Pitt in 2006, when the five-man class that took the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 played their final Coliseum contest.
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West Virginia is averaging more than 80 points per game at home while holding foes to 58.1. The Mountaineers are one of five Big East teams to post at least a .500 road record. Pitt is 5-6 on the road, including 3-5 in league play. WVU is 22-7 against the Panthers in the Coliseum. Huggins, however, is 0-3 against Pitt, losing to ranked teams every time.
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A crowd of 10,000 would push the home attendance mark to more than 146,000 this year. A sellout showing of 14,000 would give the Mountaineers an average of 10,065, which would rank fourth all-time. The record average is 11,387 in 1982, when West Virginia ripped off a 27-4 record, including 23 straight wins – the last over Pitt at home. Just three times has WVU averaged more than 10,000 per game, and the final attendance mark this year will rank in the top seven all-time for the third straight season.
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Finally, happy birthday Matt Roadcap. The former center was born on this date in 1970. A three-time All-Atlantic-10 academic selection, Roadcap is 38. He tied a career high with four free throws versus Pitt in 1991.