It goes without saying that there are plenty of stark differences between the men's basketball teams at West Virginia and Pitt. The Panthers, of course, are spoiled with the experience of seniors such as Sam Young and Levance Fields, and even sophomore DeJuan Blair, a two-year starter. By comparison, the Mountaineers play three freshmen in their top eight, and have just one senior on the entire roster. To boot, there isn't a single player on WVU's roster that comes close to replicating the dominating physical presence of Blair.
The most evident difference between the two teams in their Monday night meeting, though, was that when West Virginia made mistakes, Pitt capitalized. The Panthers, on the other hand, had a slightly larger margin for error against the undermanned Mountaineers.
"It seemed like they capitalized on everything bad that we did," admitted WVU freshman point guard Darryl Bryant. "Anytime we would mess up, they would be right there to capitalize on it."
Although the Mountaineers turned the ball over just 11 times, one less than their season average, the fourth-ranked Panthers made WVU pay by converting 16 points off of those turnovers.
Pitt even responded to its own shortcomings with poise. With Fields limited by foul trouble in the first half, reserves Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker stepped in to ably fill the void. The backcourt bench tandem finished the night combining for 13 points, which equaled the total posted by Fields.
Perhaps the defining moment of the night came midway through the first half. With primary ballhandlers Bryant, Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler all saddled with foul trouble, WVU head coach Bob Huggins inserted seldom-used reserve Will Thomas at point guard. On his first offensive possession, Thomas shuffled his feet and was whistled for a traveling call.
The visibly-frustrated Huggins moved briskly towards the end of the bench looking for somebody to sub in for Thomas. He looked first in the direction of Josh Sowards, who possibly could have provided some instant offense, but wouldn't have helped much with the lack of ballhandling. Next he looked at Jonnie West, who might be able to help a little at point by season's end, but is still working his way back into shape after missing several weeks with a broken foot.
After looking at West, the coach simply threw up his arms and strolled back to his spot closer to the scorer's table, realizing there wasn't much he could do to cure the situation. I could almost hear Hickory High coach Norman Dale proclaiming "My team is on the floor."
The example above illustrates two things. First, obviously, is the lack of backcourt depth that has been so apparent throughout the season for the Mountaineers. Undoubtedly, the ultimate "What If…" for this season is "What if Joe Mazzulla wouldn't have taken that hit from Ole Miss forward Malcolm White?"
The second point that the example hammers home is that WVU's on-court success is predicated almost exclusively on the play of Butler and Ruoff. Two glaring weaknesses on this team are a lack of ability to score the ball and a lack of experience. Butler and Ruoff are West Virginia's most experienced players and its two leading scorers. Without them on the court, WVU's chances of winning are significantly decreased.
Never has this been more apparent than it was on Monday night at the Petersen Events Center.
Butler, in particular, had a miserable night in the Steel City. The Newark, N.J. native had scored at least 20 points in six of his previous seven games entering Monday night's Backyard Brawl, but was held to a season-low of four points against the Panthers, making just two of his 12 shots and not attempting a free throw.
To be fair, I've got to cut Butler a little slack as he has been nothing short of brilliant for much of the season, and should be a serious contender for both the Big East's Most Improved Player Award and first-team all-conference honors.
A big reason for Butler's breakout year has been his improved shooting, as his three-point percentage has been above 40 percent for much of the year. And with that improvement, it certainly makes sense that he would be taking more jump shots. Even so, there is a fine line between increasing your attempts and effectiveness and relying on it a little bit too much.
Out of his 18 shots in Saturday's win over Providence, 11 came from three-point range. He finished with seven made field goals against the Friars, three of which were 3s. Against the Panthers, seven of his 12 shot attempts were jump shots, none of which were makes. Some of this is a product of the way opposing teams are defending Butler, but some of it might also be an over-reliance on his jump shot, even with the aforementioned improvement.
As hard as it is for West Virginia to score in general, that problem becomes compounded when Butler is settling for perimeter jump shots instead of mixing them in with drives to the hoop, one-on-one moves and the other weapons in his arsenal that have made him so good for so long.
Throughout his career, Butler's greatest strength has been his versatility as a scorer. Hopefully, we'll see more of that versatility as the Mountaineers hit the home stretch.