Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Pitt Panthers
It’s time to get back to the Brawl, as West Virginia heads north to the Evil Empire to battle Pitt on the hardwood for the first time since 2012. The WVU pep band played the Emperor’s March from Star Wars during introductions of the Pitt women’s hoop team on Thursday evening in Morgantown — think they understood the reference?
SCOUTING THE PANTHERS
Pitt has won four games in a row, albeit over less than stellar competition, after losing to Navy, Montana, Penn State and Oklahoma State amidst a 1-4 start. Head coach Kevin Stallings is in the midst of a rebuilding project, and fans in Oakland have been grumbling a bit, showing displeasure by staying away from the Petersen Events Center. However, the local battle with Duquesne drew more than 10,000 to the PPG Paints Arena, and it won’t be a surprise to see a big crowd show up for the renewal of this series. Given the chance to do some holiday shopping, WVU might be well-represented too.
The Panthers have shown increasing inside-outside balance as the season has progressed. Forward Ryan Luther (6-9, 255 lbs.) has done good work inside, averaging 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds. He’s complemented by swingman Jared Wilson-Frame (6-5, 200 lbs.) who leads the team with 12.9 points per outing, and guard Marcus Carr (6-1, 185 lbs) who adds 12 points and 3.8 assists per contest. Freshman Shamiel Stevenson (6-6, 230 lbs.) is instant offense off the bench, shooting 58.6%.
The Panthers have fought to find consistency and a steady rotation — nine different players have at least one start this year. Shooting has been an up and down proposition — outside of Stevenson and Terrell Brown, no Panther is above 50% from the field, and the team is at just 46.3% overall. However, Pitt has mad 60% of its two-point attempts during its current four-game winning streak. Turnovers have also been an issue, as Pitt has given the ball away 23 times more than it has taken it, and suffers a deficit of 82 shots to its opponents. Only Penn State has recorded a blowout win over Stallings’ squad, so it’s not as if the Panthers are a disaster, but additional deficits in rebounding, especially on the offensive end, have put them near .500 as they head into their tenth game of the season.
With seven freshmen on the roster, Pitt was expected to go through some growing pains.They are getting very good contributions from four of those first-year players, and while that hasn’t resulted in a notable win yet, they’d love nothing better than to hang a defeat on WVU to help jump start their entry into ACC play later this month.
A pair of statistical categories jump off the analytics charts, with both looking to favor the Mountaineers.
|WVU (8-1) vs. UP (5-4)||Sat Dec 9||8:00 PM EST|
|Petersen Events Center||Pittsburgh, PA||Series: WVU 96-88|
|RPI: WVU – 13 UP- 164||TV: ESPN2||Sirius/XM: 81 / 81|
WVU is again first nationally in turnovers forced, averaging 21.3 per game. Pitt is committing 14.4 per game, which is 219th in the country. Pitt does have a senior and a junior in the starting lineup, but also has freshman Carr as its primary ballhandler, and two more coming off the bench. Is it an automatic that West Virginia can rattle that group and force the takeaways that fuel its offense? Rebounding also looks to fall on WVU’s side – the Mountaineers are second in offensive boards in the nation, while Pitt is 308th in yielding those retrievals.
That stat is a bit of a surprise, given West Virginia’s lack of size up front. It has played small, and with three guard lineups, far more than it has played big, and that will likely continue for much of the year. But it has been able to push this advantage, and on nights when shots aren’t falling, this becomes WVU’s most important metric outside of forced turnovers.
This will also be WVU’s first game in front of a hostile crowd — the question is, just how loud and hostile will it be? Pitt’s home games this year have had attendances in the 2-3,000 range, as some disaffection has set in with the Panthers’ on-court performance. That figures to change for this game, because even if the players don’t know about the WVU – Pitt rivalry, the fans certainly do. This will be the first time that players like Wesley Harris and Teddy Allen will be subjected to the rigors of a road college crowd, and it will come at a venue that has been very hard on the Mountaineers. How will they react? WVU could squelch a lot of this if it can get off to a good start early, which would take the crowd out of the game to some degree. Still, it’s going to be Saturday night, and it won’t be a surprise to see an amped-up throng waiting to hurl insults at West Virginia when it takes the floor. They’ll have to deal with that pressure, just as the Panthers will with the Mountaineer press.
The Panthers and Mountaineers both overcame 3-point barrages to win their most recent games. UVA made five attempts in a row in the second half at the Coliseum on Tuesday night, and Mount St. Marys drained seven straight to force overtime against Pitt the same evening at the Petersen Events Center.
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This game ends a five-year break in the schedule between the two schools, which is the longest stretch since a drought from 1908-14. The two teams had met at least once every year from 1917-18 until 2011-12. Pitt is WVU’s most frequent competitor on the court, with the duo squaring off for the 18th time on Saturday. Penn State is second on that list, having played WVU 119 times.
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With 11 newcomers on the roster, Pitt faced a dearth of experience heading into the season. The Panthers returned players that accounted for just three starts and 648 minutes of court action in 2016-17.
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Pitt has lost only 42 games in the history of the Petersen Events Center, including just six non-conference contests. WVU has won twice at the venue, with both of those being Big East Conference wins in 2005 and 2012.