Still A Threat

While Pittsburgh has struggled as of late, the hosts of Wednesday night's basketball edition of Backyard Brawl don't expect the first installment of the twice-a-season rivalry game to be any easier.

The Panthers raced out of the gates in Big East Conference play, defying preseason predictions (which had them finishing ninth) by winning their first four league games.

Those victories weren't against bottom-feeders, either. Impressive, double-digit road wins at then-No. 5 Syracuse and then- No. 15 Connecticut padded the resume of head coach Jamie Dixon's club, which rose all the way to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll.

But Pittsburgh has missed some of the stars of recent seasons in its last four games, losing three of them. The first was a 74-66 defeat at the hands of then-No. 14 Georgetown -- an understandable fall.

But that has been followed up by more sobering losses at Seton Hall (64-61) and, most embarrassingly, at South Florida (70-61) on Sunday. Only a 63-53 home victory over lowly St. John's on Jan. 28 helped Pitt avoid a four game losing streak.

That didn't mean WVU head coach Bob Huggins was ready to declare that the Panthers were on an irreversible track towards mediocrity in the Big East.

"I think it's an indication the league is a lot more balanced than where we were," said the third-year Mountaineer coach. "They're doing a great job. They're playing small and doing a great job of rebounding the basketball small. They do a great job defending the post small. I think they're good."

The reason Pitt has been playing smaller this year might revolve around the loss of star center DeJuan Blair from last year's team. Blair was the 37th overall pick in the NBA Draft, and is now with the San Antonio Spurs.

But that didn't mean Huggins expected his post players -- an area bolstered by the return of forward Deniz Kilicli, who has served his 20-game NCAA-mandated suspension for having played on a team with a professional in his native Turkey -- to dominate on Wednesday night.

That is largely because of the presence of big bodies Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor. The center and forward, respectively, aren't among the marquee names on the Pitt roster, but Huggins said they still make an impact.

"It's not like they're some little team," he said. "McGhee (7.0 points. 6.5 rebounds per game) is probably as strong a guy as there is in the league. I don't know anybody bigger or stronger than what he is. So they still have a physical presence."

"Then they bring Taylor (4.6 points, 4.5 rebounds per game) in, who is also big and strong. So they've got size. They've just chosen to go, pretty much, with a smaller lineup one through four. But we did that for awhile, too, because we had to. You do what you've got to do."

But among the other players Dixon will rotate in, Jermaine Dixon and Ashton Gibbs will have the full attention of the Mountaineers.

Gibbs, a guard averaging 16.8 points and per game, is the Panthers' leading scorer.

"He's been terrific," Huggins said. "In the Syracuse game, he was unbelievable. He makes shots. They do a great job of letting him be the point guard and bring the ball up the floor, and then they run a lot of things for him. He uses screens well and gets his shot off quick."

As for Dixon, his offensive numbers aren't quite as staggering (he averages 9.5 points per game, good enough for fourth on the team). But it's his work on the other end of the floor that drew praise from West Virginia's coach.

"He's their best perimeter defender, and he's probably their most versatile defender," Huggins said.

As for what Kilicli might do, the head coach said he didn't know how long the freshman forward would play or when he might enter the line-up. But it's clear Huggins expects him to become a contributor on this No. 6 WVU team.

"I think we're all happy for Deniz, that it's over with," he said. "I think he's going to help us, but you don't know until you put guys in. You don't know what they're going to do until they're really in there, but he's shown an ability to score for us, and he ought to be a good rebounder. He's shown an ability at times to block shots. And he's got great size, which we haven't had. We're looking forward to it."

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