West Virginia and Pitt square off tonight at the Peterson Events Center for the second Backyard Brawl of the basketball season. Pitt won the first meeting in Morgantown, 71-66. SBNation Pittsburgh Pitt Panthers writer Anson Whaley and WVU writer Aaron Hawley share their take on tonight's matchup.
1. Who needs to play well tonight for your team to win?
Pitt: Pitt needs to get more production out of Gilbert Brown. He contributed very little in the Panthers' last game against St. John's and in Ashton Gibbs' recent absence, he didn't step up the way I figured he would. Gil has also been abysmal over the past three games, shooting only 6-for-24 from the field and averaging only six points - nearly half his season average before those games. Pitt's offense has been struggling lately and Gil's play has been one of the reasons for that. And even though I expect that Deniz Kilicli's big game the last time around was more of an aberration, Gary McGhee obviously will need to do a better job of denying him the ball on Thursday.
West Virginia: Truck Bryant needs to score. Bryant broke out of his epic shooting slump last weekend, going off for 24 points against Notre Dame. It was the first time he's scored more than three times in a game since before the first of the year. When Truck is hitting his jumpshots, it does wonders for the rest of the offense. It frees up the lane for Joe Mazzulla to drive to the basket, and generally spreads the floor and gets the big men better looks. When Truck has his game rolling, the Mountaineer offense runs like a charm. When his shots aren't dropping, the Mountaineers tend to stand around and look at each other. That would be death against a stingy Panther D.
2. What effect will outcome of the Backyard Brawl will have what affect the rest of your team's season?
Pitt: Provided Pitt is the Big East regular season champ, they should have an excellent shot at landing a No. 1 seed, barring a total collapse over their last four games. Pitt has three losses right now and I think they can afford to lose two more games before the NCAAs without putting their No. 1 seed chances in jeopardy. If Pitt wins the Big East and has only five losses, that should be enough to get the job done. The Panthers don't have any really bad losses and they've got a significant amount of excellent wins over Texas, UConn, Syracuse, and road wins against Georgetown and Villanova. I think they have the best resume in the country and that should count for something when the selection committee starts seeding teams. With the loss to St. John's, they obviously have less margin for error and with games remaining against Villanova and Louisville, this is close to a must-win if Pitt wants to get a No. 1 seed.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers were slumping hard before the Notre Dame win, which went a long way towards alleviating "the sky is falling" attitude in Morgantown. While the Mountaineers' strength of schedule and RPI should put them on the inside track to a tourney berth, a win at the Pete would seal the deal. West Virginia has three marquee wins on their resume but a road win against a conference-leading arch-rival ... that would put the 'Eers over the top. The truth is, this game isn't that important for the Mountaineers. No one expects them to win and, as long as they take care of business at Rutgers on Sunday, they don't really need to. Since the Mountaineers have little to lose, I expect them to play loose and energized, which will result in a competitive and entertaining game.
3. What's a reasonable expectation for your team entering the postseason?
Pitt: Pitt needs to get to the Final Four. Anything less would be a disappointment. The team has been to the Sweet 16 more times than I can count and went to the Elite Eight two years ago. There aren't any truly dominant teams this season and that makes the urgency that much greater. The 2008-09 team may have been better, but this year's team may have the best shot. Could fans live with an Elite Eight? Probably. But at some point, you've got to break through to the Final Four to be considered in the upper eschelon of programs.
West Virginia: Honestly, after last year's improbable run to the Final Four, the 'Eers are playing with house money. Mountaineer fans expect a return trip to the tournament, and they will probably get it. After that, there are no expectations. This team could easily play itself into the Sweet Sixteen or later because of its disruptive defense. That said, a first-round exit wouldn't be a surprise either. As long as West Virginia makes the Big Dance, and I expect it to, Mountaineer fans will be happy.
4. This game could be a defensive struggle, so what are your team's keys to offensive effectiveness?
Pitt: Man, Pitt's offense has really been struggling. They're averaging about 75 points per game on the season, but they've not reached that total since a game against DePaul (go figure) more than a month ago. To start, Pitt needs to get back to getting points in the paint. They couldn't do that against St. John's and they were forced to settle for a lot of jump shots. Pitt also needs to take care of the ball a little better. Over the past five games, they're averaging more than 13 turnovers per contest and they had 16 in the loss to St. John's on Saturday.
West Virginia: As I said above, Truck Bryant's play is key. You can also add to that the play of Joe Mazzulla and Casey Mitchell. The Mountaineer guards have been so woefully inconsistent this season, and Bob Huggins can't really count on all three of his guards to play well at the same time. He'd be happy with two. Against Notre Dame it was Mazzulla and Bryant, other times it's been Mitchell who has the hot hand. Simply put, without scoring production from the backcourt, the Mountaineer offense will grind to a halt. If WVU's guards can't ring the bell, it'll be a long night for the Mountaineers.
5. What opposing player is most likely to pose a matchup problem for your team?
Pitt: It's so easy to say Deniz Kilicli after his career night against Pitt the last time around. But instead of going with an individual matchup, I'm going to go with the bench as a whole. The last time, the Mountaineers' bench scored 34 points to Pitt's 11. While Kilicli had 19 of those points, even if you take him out of the equation entirely, the Panther bench was still outscored. Part of that was also due to Travon Woodall starting in place of Ashton Gibbs, but the team needs more production from guys like Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna to take some pressure off the starters.
West Virginia: I'm also going to throw out an oddball answer ... Deniz Kilicli. Or, should I say, whomever Kilicli has to guard. While he had a career night scoring the ball against the Panthers, the Turk got eaten up inside by Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson. John Flowers is the Mountaineers' best defender, and he can't guard them both. Neither Kilicli, nor Kevin Jones or Cam Thoroughman is suited to bang with Pitt's big men, so I expect some ugly play under the bucket. Kilicli will probably see the most minutes, since his scoring ability is desperately needed, but his defense can quickly negate any points he puts on the board.