SCOUTING THE PANTHERS
Pitt wins because of three primary abilities: The Panthers rebound, play solid defense and hit the outside shot. The latter of those suffered a major blow when leading scorer and three-point shooter Ashton Gibbs suffered a knee (MCL) injury over the last few days. Gibbs (6-2, 190 lbs.) will be out for tonight's game, and with him go more than 16 points and the ability to knock down shots from anywhere on the floor. Instead, primary backcourt reserve Travon Woodall (5-11, 190) will get the start. A point-style player – Gibbs' abilities are more those of a two-guard – Woodall has played more than 20 minutes on average while making 38 percent overall, 32 from three. He doesn't have nearly the shooting touch of Gibbs outside, but attacks the bucket much more effectively and gets to the line well, hitting 46 of 63 on the year. Woodall shows very good quickness and defensive ability and has tallied more than 80 assists against just 35 turnovers.
Without Gibbs' scoring, the onus will be on point guard Brad Wannamaker (6-4, 210 lbs.) to at least match his typical 12-plus points and five rebounds per game. Wannamaker has 120 assists against 50 turnovers, and is far more likely than Gibbs to attack the bucket and get to the line. Wannamaker, Pitt's best defender, has very good strength, and pairing him with Woodall will give Dixon a couple excellent ballhandlers. The flipside is that Pitt isn't as likely to make shots from outside, and thus pull West Virginia's defenders away from the basket to open passing lanes.
Forwards Gilbert Brown (6-6, 215 lbs.) and Nasir Robinson (6-5, 220 lbs.) have played together for three years. Brown averages almost a dozen points and five rebounds and actually shoots better than one would anticipate at 46 percent overall, 41.3 percent from three. He is good on the offensive glass and is adept at passing. Brown likely doesn't get the notice he deserves, and he will often make plays that go unnoticed. Robinson, more of an interior player, doesn't shoot much outside the paint and makes just 52.7 percent from the line. He scores often on putbacks and second-chance points and can slide into other positions as needed. Robinson plays physically and seems taller and longer than his frame would indicate. This is essentially a power forward in a swingman's body.
Center Gary McGhee (6-11, 250 lbs.) leads Pitt in rebounding at eight per game adds seven points. The senior is good around the rim and can hit via short jumpers and the drop step. He powers to the basket and will match anyone in the league in toughness. He makes more than 50 percent from the floor, but less than that from the foul line. If West Virginia had better depth, it could slow McGhee via fouls – but that's risky with a lack of interior bodies. A defense-first player, McGhee will alter and block shots and generally eat a ton of space in the blocks. WVU needs to get him away from the bucket if possible and try to get him in foul trouble if possible. A few legit challenges early from Deniz Kilicli to test McGhee could make some headway in that area.
|Mon. Feb. 7
7 p.m. EST
WVU 15-7, 6-4
Pitt 21-2, 9-1
WVU - 16
Pitt - 6
With Woodall starting, Pitt's backcourt depth will likely be provided by sliding typical swingman Lamar Patterson (6-5, 220 lbs.) into a supporting role as a guard. He is a pass-first player anyway, and one that could handle adequately. The other options are all freshmen who have not played more than about five minutes in a handful of games this year. Inside, Pitt has three sizeable bodies off the bench. The best of the bunch is lengthy forward Dante Taylor (6-9, 240 lbs.). The sophomore, who may not play because of a knee injury, averages six points and almost five rebounds and makes 65.9 percent from the floor. His game is all inside, and he struggles anywhere beyond essentially gimmie shots, as his 56.1 free throw shooting percentages indicates. He will not step outside, and he isn't a threat to run the floor. But Taylor rebounds extremely well when healthy, has good putback ability and can handle taller foes defensively. Typically, redshirt freshmen Talib Zanna (6-2, 225 lbs.) and Patterson and play the four and three spots, respectively, and average four and three points in about 12 minutes per game each. Patterson, especially, is a role player who mainly sets up others and only takes his shots when little else is available. Zanna, quite active inside, is a horrible free throw shooter (47.5 percent), but can pound the boards.
This is the most veteran team Dixon has had in about five years. The Panthers play extremely well together, can operate in the halfcourt and transition/pressing sets and have shown the fortitude to close games. Pitt neither forces nor commits many turnovers, and indeed their style is perhaps best summed as workmanlike or blue-collar. The Big East leaders have talent across the line-up, and can match size and skillsets with any team in the nation. Gibbs' loss is major, but Pitt could still get solid scoring from all five spots. The three-point shooting should be lessened, but the amazing rebounding numbers (plus 12 a game) will be an issue for WVU. Add in solid, though not spectacular, defense and this is Dixon's finest total unit in his tenure and Pitt's best chance at a Final Four in recent memory. West Virginia must shoot better than it has in the last six-plus games, battle on the boards and hope its very good man defense begins to wear the visitors in the second half. This one is likely to be a grinder, and one simply hopes that Pitt, sans a few players, misses a few threes and commits a few more turnovers than normal. The pure talent, experience and ability aren't with West Virginia. This is a likely loss at Pittsburgh. In Morgantown, inside the Coliseum, minus Gibbs…the Mountaineers have a chance.
WVU: F Kevin Noreen (Knee), Out for Season.
Pitt: G Ashton Gibbs (Knee), Out; F Dante Taylor (Knee), Questionable.
West Virginia is 44-8 at home under Bob Huggins, 24-8 in Big East play. One loss was to Pitt, 79-67 in 2009. Coincidentally, the Mountaineers are 24-8 all-time against Pitt in the Coliseum.
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The final nine games of West Virginia's schedule are the toughest in school history according to poll rankings. WVU plays seven ranked foes in the nine contests, including four against teams ranked in the top 10.
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John Flowers ranks first in the Big East in blocked shots. He is sixth in school history in blocks with 137. Flowers also leads the team in plus-minus ratio at +190 when he is on the floor. That number was more than 200 before the Villanova game.
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West Virginia has won 39 of its last 41 games when holding foes to less than 70 points; both loses have come in the last four games (Louisville 55-54 and Villanova 66-50).
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Huggins is 3-6 against Pitt, 3-4 while at West Virginia. Dixon is 9-6 versus the Mountaineers. The Panthers have won five of their last nine games played in Morgantown. Pitt is 7-1 in away games this season.