(Nearly) Perfect Panthers Come to Town

West Virginia's road through the Big East will get even more rough-and-tumble on Sunday afternoon when No. 4 Pitt comes to the Coliseum for the first of two meetings with the Mountaineers this season.

At a time in which the Big East Conference boasts eight teams ranked among the nation's top 25 in both major polls, it's hard to say with absolute certainty just who the best team in the league actually is. From a talent standpoint, few teams in the country can matchup top to bottom with Connecticut or Louisville, both of whom have several players on their roster that will likely play in the NBA.

Marquette's trio of experienced guards has certainly made its fair share of noise in conference play as the Golden Eagles and Louisville are the only teams without a Big East blemish on their record yet. Syracuse certainly looks to be well on its way back to the top of the league after a pair of disappointing seasons which resulted in consecutive NIT berths.

And then there's Pitt. Jamie Dixon's team doesn't do anything particularly flashy. Oh, sure, you might see a Sam Young highlight-reel dunk from time to time or a nice alley-oop from Levance Fields to DeJuan Blair. More often than not, though, the Panthers just go out and play their trademark hard-nosed defense and run a patient, efficient half-court offense. In 17 out of 18 games this season, that has added up to a Pitt win.

"I think Pitt is really, really good," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins as the Mountaineers prepared for Sunday afternoon's 4:00 PM tipoff at the Coliseum. "They're good. They may well be the best team in the league. They have so many guys who can score, and they are really, really good defensively."

WVU guard Alex Ruoff took the Pitt praise to another level, proclaiming the Panthers to be the best team in the country.

"By far," he said after Thursday night's win at Georgetown. "I think they're the best team. I think they had a couple of lapses, but I think they're the best team in the country."

Look up and down the Big East statistics and chances are you'll find the Panthers near the top of the league in several categories. Defensively, Pitt is first in field goal percentage defense and second in scoring defense. They rank first in offensive rebounding, second in rebounding margin and first in assist-to-turnover ratio.

What cannot be tracked by statistics but is apparent in reading them and watching the Panthers play is that seldom – if ever – do they make costly mistakes, a clear result of having an experienced lineup anchored by seniors Fields and Young and even Blair, the sophomore center.

To a man, every player on the team seems to know his role. While Pitt basketball has consistently been amongst the league's best, first under Ben Howland and now under Dixon, this particular Panther team might be better than any in recent memory.

"It could be. It could very well be," Huggins admitted. "I thought they were pretty good a few other times, but they just have so many people. When you have that many people, a couple of guys can have a bad day and you can just bring other guys in off of the bench. It's great to have that many people."

A prime example came in Pitt's league opener at Rutgers on December 31. Corey Chandler, Mike Rosario and Anthony Farmer were lighting it up from long range for the Scarlet Knights. Blair was in foul trouble from start to finish, and neither Fields nor Young were playing up to their lofty standards.

Still, the Panthers found a way to win, thanks to the play of reserves Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs.

"Rutgers played terrific against them at the RAC, but then Wannamaker comes in and makes a couple of threes and Ashton Gibbs comes in and makes a three," Huggins recalled. "Those are guys coming off the bench. You just can't prepare for their starters because they've got so many people. It's hard."

In the two days following West Virginia's win at Georgetown, Huggins has been hard at work looking first for a weakness in the Panthers, then for a way to exploit said weakness.

"I haven't seen any," he shrugged. "It's early, though. The game isn't until 4 tomorrow. I haven't found any yet though."

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