UPDATING THE PANTHERS
The Mountaineers, 0-2 against the Panthers this season, will look to avoid a third loss in a single year for the first time since both teams joined the Big East. Pitt nearly took the league's regular season title – losing it only because WVU fell at home to Louisville in a game closer than many expected. The Panthers had two first-team all-conference picks in Sam Young (6-6, 220 lbs.) and DeJuan Blair (6-7, 265 lbs.), and those are the two about which the Mountaineers must be most concerned. Young is a do-it-all player who torched West Virginia for 22 and 20 points in the two previous meetings this season. He's hitting 50 percnet of his shots from the field and is proficient in all areas except his turnover tendency (74 to 37 assists). This is the most difficult individual match-up. Blair hurt WVU with 16 points in Morgantown, but was held to eight at the Petersen Events Center – though that came with nine rebounds and on four of eight shooting. The strength and girth of the interior player is impossible to shut down; the hope is to again limit the sophomore and force him away from the paint.
That still leaves a bevy of other options, first among them point guard LeVance Fields (5-10, 190 lbs.). The senior scored 13 points and dished seven assists in the teams' last contest, and his experience and ability to involve teammates of drop shots from all over is tough to slow. Fields will force the occasional shot, but rarely turns the ball over and makes foes beat his team with their game. His brashness is a pain to watch, but there's no denying his ability and game intelligence. Backcourt mate Jermaine Dixon (6-3, 195 lbs.) is the also-ran of the starters, but he hit WVU for nine points in the last game and is a capable shooter and rebounder. His 65 assists to 30 turnovers is exceptional, and his 46 steals lead among the best team defenses in the Big East. The Mountaineers can't focus upon him with the other players, but they can't ignore him, either. Forward Tyrell Biggs (6-8, 250 lbs.) makes 40 percent of his threes, a major plus with his ability to get shots over defenders. He's also almost as good on the offensive glass as the defensive, and gets many of Pitt's clean-up points. His size and physicality are solid, and he has the footwork, hustle and skills to create issues anywhere inside the arc.
The bench is among the deepest in basketball. Three players see at least 10 minutes, with guard Brad Wanamaker (6-4, 205 lbs.) and swingman Gilbert Brown (6-6, 200 lbs.) playing an average of 18.7 and 19.3 minutes, respectively. Wanamaker can handle the point as needed, and is an adequate shooter at 48.4 percent, including 44 percent from three-point range (22 of 50). A fantastic addition off the bench, the sophomore lacks the overall assist-to-turnover numbers of Fields but more than matches any starter as a scorer and rebounder. Brown, also a sophomore, can take his game outside, though his shooting quickly deteriorates more than 12 feet from the hoop. He makes less than 30 percent from three-point range, and right now he's simply a solid backup. His 5.2 points and 3.1 rebounds won't shock anyone, but he can jump and will get to boards when foes should have them. Ashton Gibbs, a 6-2, 190-pound point player, will also likely see the floor. The New Jersey native scored seven points in 17 minutes in the last Backyard Brawl. He'll be tested as a freshman, especially with the game being close to home. Head coach Jamie Dixon also plays center Gary McGhee (6-10, 250 lbs.) and forward Nasir Robinson (6-5, 220 lbs.) for about seven minutes per game, and having those two available was a plus when both teams got into foul trouble in the last tilt. Both shoot well, but are no threat away from the basket and don't average more than 1.4 points per game.
West Virginia has likely secured better than the dreaded eight or nine seed for the NCAA Tournament, and indeed could be playing for as high as a five or six seed (though seven is the projection of now). The key to continuing to raise that will be board work. The Mountaineers need to rebound in this game and attack potential boards as they did against Notre Dame. Limiting Young, an All-Big East selection, is a significant as well. He'll score – the WVU killer is the lone player to have standout games in both meetings this year – and utilizes a deadly turnaround jumper and the ability to get a step and exploit a defender for an easy inside hoop. Add the rare talent to score from anywhere on the floor, and simply slowing the senior is perhaps the best one could hope for. This alone is a major obstacle in advancing to the semifinals. Toss in DeJuan Blair, and Pitt already has enough to test any squad. Huggins has found a way to slow either Fields or Blair, but has yet to find an answer for Young. That might not come again. If it doesn't, nearly every other Pitt player will need to be held below season averages to have a shot.
|Thurs. March. 12
7 p.m. EST
Madison Square Garden
WVU 22-10, 11-8
Pitt 28-3, 15-3
West Virginia 93-84
|XM 218 (Pitt)|
WVU - 26
Pitt - 1
Look for the Mountaineers to play as hard as they have all season. WVU lacks the overall talent to match-up in this game, but hasn't been soundly defeated in either meeting and had chances late in the latter one even with foul trouble. If Alex Ruoff can stay hot and the freshmen play as they have of late, West Virginia can keep it close enough to give Pitt a scare. Shooting is a key, as are limiting mistakes and playing physically. That combo and being able to slow Pitt's triage could create some interest in the Garden. Anything close, and the crowd will shift to the underdog. Frankly, it's an unknown as to whether Huggins can devise something schematically to limit a lineup with that much ability. This is likely a case of one team having to play a bit down for another to win. On a brighter note, there's little chance Pit again hits 50 percent from the field.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
Pitt won the only other Big East Tournament meeting in the 2006 league quarterfinals. This is the 178th meeting overall and just the second time since both teams joined the Big East that they will play three times in one season.
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WVU is 26-40 all-time at Madison Square Garden. It has won 11 of its last 16 in the ‘World's Most Famous Arena.' It has won seven of its last 11 Big East Tournament games, by far the best streak in school history since joining the conference.
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Head coach Bob Huggins is 34-11 in conference tournaments, including nine titles in three leagues. Huggins is in sole possession of 25th place on the NCAA Division I men's basketball wins list after the victory over Notre Dame in the first round.
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Alex Ruoff passed Kevin Pittsnogle on the all-time WVU three-point list with 257 after his four threes against the Irish. Devin Ebanks pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds against Notre Dame. The Mountaineers had 20 offensive rebounds and 52 overall. It was the 17th time this year that West Virginia has tallied 15 or more boards on the offensive end.
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WVU leads the Big East in scoring defense, holding foes to 61.3 points per game on average.