UPDATING THE PANTHERS
Pitt has won three in a row since its double-digit upset loss to Villanova, while the Mountaineers have split four games since the first series meeting, beating St. John's and Providence while losing on the road against two ranked teams in Louisville and Syracuse. It'll be a fifth rated foe in seven games for the Mountaineers in a nationally televised game tonight. The Panthers, looking to gain a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, are trying for their 22nd win in 24 games and a solid finish to one of the finest seasons in school history. On paper, it looks like they'll get it. DeJuan Blair (6-7, 265 lbs.) is still on a tear, averaging almost 16 points and 13 rebounds. The sophomore couldn't be hooter from the floor, making 57 percent of his shots. He's nearing an incredible 150 rebounds on both the offensive and defensive end; he had a game-high 11 versus WVU in the first meeting. Sam Young (6-6, 220 lbs.), who shredded WVU's defense for 22 points on a variety of quick turnaround jumpers, drives to the rim and pull-ups from mid-range, is hitting for 17 points and six boards and is scoring from anywhere on the floor.
Point guard Levance Fields (5-10, 190 lbs.) hurt the Mountaineers inside the Coliseum with his fadeaway jumpers and floaters around the rim. Fields would draw a defender, then launch a high-arcing shot that usually found its mark. Though he wasn't spectacular, he ensured Pitt maintained what it was attempting to do, staying with the game plan until it began to assert its will and pull away in the final 10 minutes. The senior is averaging 11 points per game, and his assist to turnover ratio continues to improve. WVU did force him into four turnovers, a rather high number for the New York native, but no Mountaineer guard could defend him on the short jumpers and drives. Fellow guard Jermaine Dixon (6-3, 195 lbs.), is merely a support player but still scores about nine points per game. He hit for 11 in the first game, adding four assists, two steals and a block in 32 minutes. Tyrell Biggs (6-8, 250 lbs.) good for seven points and five rebounds on average, remains a threat from the inside and outside, though being turnover prone at times. West Virginia held in him check well, but limiting even two or three of Pitt's players, especially if they are not go-to guys, won't be enough.
Brad Wanamaker (6-4, 205 lbs.), Ashton Gibbs (6-2, 190 lbs.) and Gary McGhee (6-10, 250 lbs.) are still seeing the majority of reserve minutes. Wanamaker, a guard out of Philadelphia, played 21 minutes versus West Virginia earlier in the year and distributed well. He isn't flashy, but plays steadily and is an excellent backup for head coach Jamie Dixon. Gibbs, the backup point player, was inserted for just eight minutes because of the need to have Fields on the floor in the initial Brawl. He's been terrific from all over, though, nailing 47.3 percent of his shots, 50 percent from three-point range (25 of 50). He's very effective and adept at handling in most situations, especially in limited duty. McGhee, Pitt's lone listed center, has one start this season and plays about eight minutes a game depending upon match-ups. The sophomore is better on the defensive end, but one shouldn't expect him to see much time against West Virginia because the Panthers don't need to sacrifice his offense for length or width against their smaller rivals. Instead, 6-6, 200-pound guard/forward combo Gilbert Brown will slide to various slots in this game. The sophomore did that well in Morgantown, playing 19 minutes. He scored just four points and recorded two rebounds, but his ability to man two or three positions allowed Dixon to toy with the lineup as he desired.
There's little reason to think this game will be different from the first. Pitt has too much in all areas for West Virginia. The Mountaineers can't match Blair inside, don't have the experience or ability to create and convert good shots from the point guard position, and have nobody that can defend Young. Pitt can drive and dish or kick, the team shoots well as a whole, and any misses can be cleaned up. The Mountaineers played evenly with the Panthers for 25-plus minutes in the first contest because they were physical enough on the boards while the shot was in the air. They moved bodies, pressed offensive players outside the lanes and positioned themselves well. That broke down in the second half, and the second or third chances, if Pitt even needed them, were there far too often.
|Mon. Feb. 9
7 p.m. EST
Petersen Events Center
WVU 16-7, 5-5
Pitt 21-2, 8-2
West Virginia 93-83
|Sirius 125 (Pitt)|
WVU - 15
Pitt - 2
The challenge increases immeasurably inside the Petersen Events Center. WVU has played well at times in the building, including last year under head coach Bob Huggins and when it rallied from down eight points over the final few minutes to shock Pitt in 2005. If Alex Ruoff can hit a few shots and Truck Bryant plays contained and under control, simply moving the bodies on rebounding and making key baskets will be enough to stay in the game. But that's much easier preached than practiced versus Pitt.
The team is a legit Elite Eight contender, and shouldn't merely fold like a lawn chair come NCAA time this year. There's depth and talent and experience and even the intangibles needed. The defense is smothering at times, and it can be hard to find a way to attack the Panthers without a third scorer. Only having a pair of players (Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler) who can score well has immensely limited what the Mountaineers can do. Three seems to be the key number in college basketball, and it's just not there for WVU at this time. Simply put, Pitt must play a bit down and West Virginia must do the above, plus perhaps a bit more, to win. It's not a guarantee, but a victory will be difficult. Get a decision here, though, and that lackadaisical, ugly effort in the Carrier Dome is forgotten.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
The next two games, against Pitt and Villanova, will be the ninth and tenth games against ranked foes this season for West Virginia. The Mountaineers had the eighth most difficult schedule, according to RealTimeRPI.com and CollegeRPI.com, entering the game Monday. That number should rise over the next week.
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With a win, WVU head coach Bob Huggins will tie Hugh Durham for 26th place on the all-time NCAA Division I men's basketball wins list with 633 victories. He is the fourth winningest active coach.
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The Mountaineers have played more road games than any other Big East team. They are 8-5 away from the WVU Coliseum, including 5-3 in true road games. All West Virginia's league losses have come to ranked teams. Just two were at home, including a six-point loss to No. 1 Connecticut in a game that wasn't decided until the final minute.
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Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff have both reached double figures in scoring in WVU's last 14 games. Butler has 66 career double-figure scoring games. Butler's 17 point effort against Providence was the first time in seven games that the junior did not reach the 20-point plateau.
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Pitt is 14-0 at home, 4-0 in Big East play this season. There is no team West Virginia has played more. The Mountaineers can become just the third team to win more than once in the Petersen Events Center with a victory. WVU was in prime position to be the second team to accomplish the feat last season when Pitt hit a three-pointer to win as time expired.