Monday, March 03, 2008


March 3, 2008

The Backyard Brawl takes center stage on ESPN's Big Monday as Pittsburgh travels south to Morgantown to meet the West Virginia Mountaineers. It is Senior Night in the Coliseum against their biggest rival, so emotions will be extra high as WVU is out for revenge.

Here are the local media game stories and previews on tonight's contest:

WVU Seeks Revenge in Pitt Rematch (Times West Virginian)
It All Comes to Heart (Times West Virginian)
Plenty At Stake for WVU in Brawl (Charleston Gazette)
Big Monday! Big Basketball Brawl (WV Metro News)
Pitt's Young Steps into Leadership Role (Pittsburgh Tribune Review)
WVU on Edge Again Heading into Brawl (Post-Gazette)

The intense rivalry that is known as the Backyard Brawl has been one-sided of late, with Pittsburgh winning five of the last six in the series. That includes the February 7th edition that was won by the Panthers on Ronald Ramon's buzzer-beating three-pointer in a 55-54 Pitt win. West Virginia will have revenge on their mind as the two teams prepare to meet tonight on ESPN's Big Monday showcase.

It has been quite a season for Pittsburgh, a roller-coaster for sure. The season has had incredible high's, including Levance Fields's winning three-pointer to beat Duke in December, Ramon's shot to beat WVU, the thrilling win at Washington and they can add the stunning rally to beat Syracuse Saturday at the Dome to the list. Trailing 75-64 with 3:30 left in the contest, Pitt outscored the Orange 18-2 to finish the game and win 82-77, solidifying their place in the NCAA Tournament. As long as nothing crazy happens between now and Selection Sunday, this will be the Panthers' seventh straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, a school record and the longest current Big East streak. The Panther season has also had some crazy lows, including Mike Cook's season-ending knee injury in the Duke win, Levance Fields breaking his foot in a blowout loss at Dayton, losing at home to Rutgers and a recent three game losing streak.

For West Virginia, despite a similar 9-7 conference record, the picture is a bit murkier. Looking back through their schedule, the Mountaineers have beaten one Big East team with a conference record of .500 or better, and that came on January 6th against Marquette. Their best non-conference win is likely over New Mexico State (17-13) on a neutral floor or Duquense (16-11) at home. There is not an impressive road win on the schedule at all. However, at 9-7 in the Big East, the Mountaineers still seem to be on the right side of the bubble, and a win tonight should safely secure a bid, as long as they take care of business against St. John's to close out their schedule.

In the first meeting between the two teams, West Virginia did not help themselves by shooting 7-17 from the foul line in a 1-pt loss. The actually shot better from three-point range (9-19) which had them in position to win before the free-throw meltdown. After the game, Bob Huggins publicly called out his teams toughness, mentally and physically, after they allowed Pitt to take the game from them.

Pittsburgh played that game without starting point guard Levance Fields, who has now played in their last five games since returning from the broked foot that sidelined him for 12 straight games. Despite Pitt losing their first three games with Fields back on the floor, they looked better in each game, especially offensively, and have now won their last two. Anytime you play against WVU, you will be challenged to make perimeter shots as Bob Huggins will mix up defenses in an effort to prevent teams from attacking WVU inside. The Mountaineers are still a bit soft in the middle, so the Panther star forwards, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, should find space inside to score points and grab offensive boards.

While Fields has the offense running effeciently, he is still struggling shooting from the perimter and Ronald Ramon, despite the big shot in the last meeting, is not shooting at his career percentage from the arc. If you can force Pitt to launch three's, you are doing a good job defensively.

It is senior night for West Virginia and Darris Nichols will end his career (along with Jamie Smalligan) in front of the WVU fans. Nichols has been very pivotal in the recent success of the Mountaineers teams under John Beilein and has helped bridge the transition from Beilein to Huggins. Nichols has been a key part of an Elite 8 team, a Sweet 16 club and an NIT championship with his steady hand and ability to hit key shots in crucial moments. WVU will need their senior to lead them tonight.

However, he will need help and the two players that abandoned him in the first meeting, juniors Joe Alexander and Alex Ruoff, will need to be forces offensively tonight. Ruoff has the ability to make Pitt pay from the perimter and Alexander has the size and athletic ability to compete with the Panther front line. Alexander is coming off a 32-point performance at Connecticut, now he needs to carry that over against the Panthers. He is the team's leading scorer and rebounder on the season. Da'Sean Butler is a versatile player that will need to help on the boards and defensively to slow down Pitt.

There are a couple factors working in West Virginia's favor here tonight. First, revenge. The Mountaineers will not be allowed to forget about the earlier loss that really ripped apart Bob Huggins. Also, it is senior night and Darris Nichols has been a winner for four years, so sending him off on that note will be a focus of the effort of his teammates. Also, they are coming off a tough loss and still have work in front of them for the NCAA Tournament while Pittsburgh is coming off an emotional high in the win over Syracuse and now has to re-focus on a quick turnaround to face a rival that has this game circled on their calendar.

WVU is a 5-pt favorite and, with the intangible factors nearly all pointing towards WVU, the NBE Blogger is going in that direction tonight.

NBE Blogger Prediction: West Virginia 69 Pittsburgh 62



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