Thursday, February 07, 2008


February 7, 2008

The Backyard Brawl is one of the most heated rivalries in college sports. Tonight, the hardwood version of the rivalry takes center stage on ESPN's Rivalry Week as West Virginia and Pittsburgh meet at the Peterson Events Center.

Here are the local media previews and stories on the game:

Win at Pitt Would Be Huge for WVU (Charleston Gazette)
WVU Aiming for Upset Against Old Nemesis Pitt (Martinsburg Journal)
Huggins Patient to Instill Style at WVU (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Pitt-WVU coaches History Dates Back 10 Years (Tribune-Review)

It is the 174th meeting all-time between Pittsburgh and West Virginia, with the Mountaineers holding the all-time series edge of 92-81 heading into tonight's clash. Each team enters the contest with identical 5-4 records in the Big East, so tonight's game has plenty of meaning outside of the rivalry.

West Virginia broke a 2-game losing streak with a road win over Providence last weekend, 77-65. The Mountaineers had lost a pair at home, a heart-breaker to Georgetown on a couple last second plays by the Hoyas and a 62-39 drubbing at the hands of Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh has also lost two of three, including their inexplicable loss of the season, 77-64 to Rutgers, at home. Pitt lost their last outing, 60-53 at UConn. The game was tied at 51 with just over two minutes to go, but the Panthers did not make the plays down the stretch.

Much like the teams John Beilein coaches at West Virginia prior to Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers rely on the three-point shot. Alex Ruoff is their top sniper, averaging 14.5 ppg and shooting 44% from beyond the arc. Joe Alexander leads the team in scoring (14.8 ppg) and rebounds (5.8) and was a prep teammate of the Panthers' Sam Young and Hargrave Military Academy. The WVU attack is rounded out by sophomore Da'Sean Butler, likely their best all-around player, who averages 12.7 ppg and 5.7 rebounds and senior point guard Darris Nichols averages 12 ppg.

The Mountaineers do a better job of rebounding this season than they have in the past, but it is still an area that opponents attack. In Beilein's system it was more finesse than the style Bob Huggins prefers and he has questioned his team's toughness in the past. The lack of toughness was evident in the loss against Cincinnati where WVU shot just 10-50 from the floor and 1-20 from 3-pt range.

If your toughness has been questioned, there is no better team to prove that wrong than against Pittsburgh, annually one of the toughest teams in the country. With freshman DeJuan Blair in the post, their trademark toughness continues. Blair will look to anchor down inside and clean up the boards. Sam Young has also had some of his strongest games against WVU in the past, dominating along the baseline against their 1-3-1 zone defense.

Because of their injury issues, it is a must for Pittsburgh to keep Young and Blair out of foul trouble. The Panthers are without Levance Fields and Mike Cook, and that adds pressure to the backcourt of Gilbert Brown, Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin to score, defend and make smart decisions all game. Ramon and Benjamin are seniors and have had some very good moments this season, but both have been quiet offensively lately. Benjamin has been struggling with a nasty cut on his shooting hand that required stiches, but looks to be healthier tonight. Ramon has a nagging shoulder injury, but as the point guard, he does not look for his shot enough. He has done a solid job as the point guard, but he does not have the ability to break down the defense and score like Fields had. This seems to hurt Pitt down the stretch of close games.

The Panthers are a slight 3-pt favorite on their home floor. The Mountaineers have a road-heavy schedule down the stretch and are 2-2 in the Big East away from home with wins over South Florida and PC. The Panthers have lost just once at home, to Rutgers, giving all teams some hope when coming into the Pete.

However, following a night when all three road times were victorious in the Big East, look for the home team to tough out a victory.

NBE Blogger Prediction: Pittsburgh 71 West Virginia 65



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