SCOUTING THE HOYAS
The Mountaineers enter off a dominant victory over Georgetown, a team that tested Pitt through the first 30 minutes of the game before badly wilting down the stretch. The No. 4 Panthers, winners of 17 of 18 overall and five of six in Big East play (at Louisville), are tearing up league competition and appear primed to challenge for one of four NCAA Tournament top seeds. WVU handled their rivals last year, splitting the regular season series only because Pitt drained a last-second three-pointer to win at the Petersen Events Center. Without Joe Alexander, however, the advantage tilts to the road team in this game, with West Virginia having to overcome deficiencies in experience, height, skill at some slots and interior play that's arguably the best in the Big East.
It starts – and could end – with DeJuan Blair. The 6-7, 260-pound forward averages 14 points and 13 rebounds per game, the latter mark tops in the conference. His strength, body built, ability to block out and sheer will and desire make this the toughest rebounding opponent WVU will face in the regular season. Blair, who has more than 100 rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends, makes 60 percent of his shots and can dominate in the paint and around the low block. It's hard to shove him outside, and he'll relish the contact, getting foes in foul trouble and taking away marquee players from opposing squads. He doesn't convert from the line well, but that's a second or third thought when trying to contain the sophomore. The idea will be to limit his touches, then get him away from the rim as much as possible. Stopping drives from the other players to avoid close shots will also help, and if WVU can force the Panthers to beat them from the outside, misses should create longer rebounds and negate some of Blair's impact. Foul trouble never hurts, either.
Fellow forwards Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs lack Blair's strength and nose for the ball. But their games nicely offset, with Young's offensive-based array balancing Biggs' defense and size. Young, at 6-6, 220 pounds, is shooting well and can get into opposing players and create spacing in the lane. He can score from anywhere on the floor, and though not a three-point ace, takes his chances from there as his 82 attempts lead the team. The senior is averaging a team-leading 18.6 points per game with 5.6 boards. He'll pull players out, providing passing lanes and areas for movement within head coach Jamie Dixon's offense. And even if his shot's off, the idea that he can hit from deep forces foes out to guard him, so that cancels the idea of sagging a bit. Biggs, 6-8, 250 pounds, is converting at a higher percentage than any other Panther (51.3 from the field and 54.2 from three-point range), but his offense isn't forced and he is more opportunistic. Where Young turns the ball over, Biggs is steady and doesn't commit mistakes while getting his eight-plus points and five rebounds an outing.
Point guard Levance Fields, 5-10, 190 pounds, might be the most quintessential Big East guard in the last decade. He isn't flashy and rarely makes jaw-dropping plays. But he'll attack the basket, make routine drives to the hoop, thrives on contact, has a good build and solid strength and plays good basketball for extended periods night in and out. His 126 assists against 33 turnovers is incredible, and yet his doesn't just distribute. At 10.4 points per game and 2.6 rebounds, Fields won't beat a team by himself. But like a Darris Nichols, his lack of errors and keen awareness the other nine players on the floor is exceptional. Shooting guard Jermaine Dixon, who began starting this season after the departure of Ronald Ramon, hits for eight points and two boards per game. The junior is nowhere near as effective as Ramon from behind the arc and doesn't get to the line well. But he handles the ball effectively and is essentially asked simply not to make an abundance of bad plays.
The reserves, which haven't had the pressure they did last season when Fields and the now-graduated Mike Cook were limited for much of the season with injuries, have still logged decent minutes as Dixon mixes them in when games are out of reach – as they often were earlier in the season. Guard/forward Gilbert Brown is the most versatile, as the 6-6, 200 pound, sophomore can man up to three slots. He averages 20 minutes per appearance and, though athletic, doesn't attempt to overplay his ability. He uses a good mid-range jumper and averages about six points per game. Fellow sophomore Brad Wannamaker is a pure two-guard at 6-4, 205 pounds. He has a good touch and above average quickness, and more than adequately spells Dixon. If the coaching staff needs someone to better exploit the lane and drive, they use freshman Ashton Gibbs. Gibbs, 6-2, 190 pounds, plays 10 minutes per game and is red-hot from the floor, making 46 percent, including conversions on 16 of 29 threes. Nasir Robinson (6-5, 220 pounds) and Gary McGhee (6-10, 250) are the interior reserves. Neither has an outside game, and both combine to score little more than three points on average. Neither plays more than about eight to nine minutes, and their roles are just to gain rest minutes for the rest of Pitt's inside players.
Unlike the Georgetown game, Pitt won't run enough pre-determined sets for West Virginia to easily disrupt the offense. It will have to battle well on the boards, as it did against the Hoyas, and match the Panthers' physicality. This is one of the few teams, even in the Big East, that can and will equal WVU in defensive intensity and will. Build with likeminded New York-based talent, Pitt attacks consistently and won't back off a challenge. The rivalry's intensity should only add to that, making the mid-afternoon Coliseum affair more boxing match than ballet.
|Sun. Jan. 25
4 p.m. EST
WVU 14-4, 3-2
Pitt 17-1, 5-1
West Virginia 93-82
Big East Network
|Sirius 130 (Pitt)|
WVU - 16
Pitt - 2
One advantage for head coach Bob Huggins is that he shouldn't have any issue with motivation for this game. A top five team, a chance to certainly springboard well into the top 25 with a win and an opportunity to hang a loss on a rival in one of their prime seasons is enough for any team. Add in the rough-and-tumble and a sold out home atmosphere and the Coliseum should be boisterous. The keys for the Mountaineers will be solid rebounding and getting into a decent flow with the offense. It doesn't have to shoot above 50 percent, as it did in the second half in destroying Georgetown. It likely doesn't even need to be extremely hot from three-point range because Pitt won't have a Ramon-like shooter to answer. But converting when chances arrive and getting those chances in the hands of proper players is imperative. It seems the emphasis is routinely on the same: work on defense and within the rebounding game on both sides, keep scorers on the floor and out of foul trouble and get a body on foes well away from the basket to avoid second-chance points.
The above, plus getting Blair into foul trouble could equal and upset. The Pittsburgh native could simply be too much on both ends for WVU to handle otherwise. Huggins will pinch down on him under the hoop and not allow entry passes as much as possible. But Blair's going to get his on missed chances and other opportunities. The idea is to keep ‘his' a bit less than usual. If West Virginia does that, it's defense on all other players should be good enough if the offense plays efficiently and doesn't turn the ball over. The mantra might be "Guard the full 35." No relaxation, no plays off.
Huggins will be in sole possession of 27th place on the all-time Division I men's basketball head coaching wins list with a victory. He currently has 630 wins, tying him with Cam Henderson. He is just three wins from 26th place, and his two-year record at West Virginia, at its current pace, will far exceed his first two seasons anywhere else in his head coaching history.
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This is the second consecutive game in which West Virginia will face a top 25 team. The Mountaineers play Top 25 foes, according to this week's poll, in six of their next eight games. It is arguably the most difficult 10-game stretch in school history.
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The Mountaineers are 35-0 under Huggins when outshooting foes. They are 22-5 in home Big East games over the last four years. Overall, WVU will be trying for its 50th home win in four years.
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West Virginia is limiting opponents to 58.9 points per game on average this season. Pitt is holding foes to 59.4. Those numbers rank first and second, respectively, in the Big East and 18th and 22nd in NCAA Division I.
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Pitt's Jamie Dixon will try for his 150th coaching win. He is 149-41, all at Pitt.