Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
The ‘Backyard Brawl’ is one of the Big East’s oldest rivalries, and the first of this year’s encounters on the hardwood should be a good one, as #3 Pittsburgh (17-1, 5-1) travels to Morgantown to face #11 West Virginia (14-4, 3-2).
Pittsburgh started the season 16-0, but had only one quality win at Georgetown during their streak, which ended last week at Louisville. The Panthers rebounded strongly this week, though, beating Syracuse by nearly 20. West Virginia is a team that doesn’t have an impressive record at first glance, but its losses are all decent ones, to Kentucky, Davidson, Connecticut and Marquette. The Mountaineers are coming in off a impressive road win against Georgetown, as they put on a strong second-half run to secure the victory.
Pittsburgh is an offensive juggernaut, but you wouldn’t know that from its shooting percentages, which are good, but nothing special. Where Pitt makes its hay is on the offensive glass, recovering 44% of its misses and creating a lot of high-percentage second chances that boost its two-point shooting over 50%. The Panthers also commit very few turnovers, so they are able to end a lot of possessions with a made shot. West Virginia will cause Pitt problems with its pressure defense, a Bob Huggins specialty. The Mountaineers are one of the nation’s best team at defending the three point shot, allowing just barely more than a quarter of opponent attempts from behind the arc. West Virginia also forces a lot of turnovers, but is only average on the defensive glass, where you’d expect Pitt to dominate.
West Virginia plays at a faster pace than Pittsburgh, but its offense is quite similar in the basic profile. The Mountaineers are only average at making shots, and have been below-average from behind the arc, but have still managed to score at a solid rate by avoiding turnovers and crashing the offensive glass. Neither team is particularly efficient at the free throw line, but West Virginia has generally been more successful in getting there. Pittsburgh ‘s defense depends on stopping shots, as it is only average at rebounding and forcing turnovers. The Panthers are especially strong inside, where opponents make only 42% of attempts. Given the Mountaineers’ weak outside shooting, West Virginia will likely have a tough time making shots in this one.
Mountaineer forward Da’Sean Butler has picked up his offensive play in his junior season, scoring nearly 17 points a game, and shooting well from inside and from outside, while also doing well on the boards. Alex Ruoff is a important second scoring option for West Virginia, but hasn’t been great so far this season. Ruoff shoots a solid percentage behind the arc on a large number of attempts, and has scored in double digits in all but one of the Mountaineers’ games this year, but has struggled of late, under 40% from the field in Big East play. With Joe Mazzula still out with a shoulder injury, only one other guard besides Ruoff gets a lot of time, in 6-2 Darryl Bryant. The freshman still has to learn to score effectively inside, but is a very good three-point shooter and gets to the line often. Devin Ebanks hasn’t been too consistent, but can be a strong scorer when hot, and is the team’s best rebounder. Wellington Smith and John Flowers are good shot blockers and rebounders, and both are also solid inside scoring options. Freshman Kevin Jones is another player who can be counted on for a rebounding presence down low off the bench.
Forget Luke Harangody and Blake Griffin, the nation’s best rebounder has clearly been Pitt’s DeJuan Blair. Blair is 3rd nationally in rebounding despite playing 7 or 8 less minutes a game than the aforementioned pair, and pulls down an absurd 27% of his team’s misses, which if it holds for the season, would be the highest percentage of the last five years. Blair has also improved his offensive game, making over 60% of his shots and committing very few turnovers. He also leads the teams in steals and blocks, and is one of the biggest game-changing forces in the nation. Sam Young leads the team in scoring, and hitting nearly 50% from the field, including a healthy showing from the three-point line. Levance Fields is the third member of Pitt’s critical trio, second nationally with 7 assists a game, and with a stellar 3.8 A/TO ratio. This group of three, in terms of ability inside and outside, is as good as any in the nation. Tyrell Biggs also starts in the frontcourt, he shoots over 50% and does a good job getting the few boards that slip through Blair’s grasp. Freshman Jermaine Dixon has shot a good percentage from two, but ruined it with an abysmal show from three-point range. Brad Wanamaker is a good shooting option off the bench, while Gilbert Brown is an effective shooter and rebounder who serves as a solid depth player for the frontcourt.
West Virginia is an underrated team, and this is a difficult game to call, but Pitt’s defense should provide the edge that the Panthers need, as West Virginia will have a lot of trouble scoring. The Mountaineers do have a good shot in this game, but Levance Fields should be the steady hand the Panthers need to survive West Virginia’s pressure defense.
Winner: Pittsburgh Margin: 2-6
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.