The West Virginia University Coliseum can be intimidating for a number of reasons, from the throbbing crowds of 14,000 to the unmitigated success of the basketball team in Morgantown.
But if you ask members of the 16th-ranked Pitt Panthers, who play there tonight at 6 p.m., what really makes the place daunting, they’ll point to the bearded fellow in the coonskin hat.
“I don’t remember much about (my last visit), just the crazy gun before the game,” sophomore center Chris Taft said. “It kind of bothers me.”
Added sophomore forward Levon Kendall: “They try to intimidate you with the musket.”
Taft joked that he’s used to hearing gunshots because he grew up in Brooklyn, but he should know that the WVU mascot, who debuted in 1936, shoots blanks — much like the WVU basketball team these days.
In one short month, the Mountaineers (12-7, 2-6 Big East) have gone from a team of sharpshooters to a team of that can’t hit the side of a Sumo wrestler. They shot 49.9 percent from the field, including 38.1 from 3-point range, while racing to a 10-0 start and a No. 21 ranking.
But those numbers have dipped to 36.7 and 26.5 during a swoon that’s seen them lose seven of their last nine (five to ranked opponents) by an average of 15.0 points.
Their mottoâ¢ Live by the outside shot, die by the outside shot. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the latter has applied of late. They rank last in Big East play in field-goal percentage (36.0) and in field-goal percentage defense (50.0).
Moreover, they’ve taken the most 3-point shots in the league … and missed the most.
“We have to shoot the ball very well (to compete),” said third-year WVU coach John Beilein, whose team lacks playmakers like Pitt’s Carl Krauser, Chevon Troutman and Chris Taft. “Maybe our guys aren’t good enough shooters and maybe we have to recruit better shooters, but we were good enough (shooting) not just in guaranteed games, but in most of the games we played to start the season.”
Pitt (15-3, 5-2) should expect to get WVU’s best effort tonight, considering the proximity of the schools, the “Backyard Brawl” rivalry and the fact the Mountaineers need to redirect their season quickly if they hope to sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers are riding a three-game winning streak after victories against Connecticut, Syracuse and Providence, but they must prove they can get up for any opponent regardless of record or ranking. The Panthers have been upset by Bucknell, Georgetown and St. John’s already.
“We looked at ourselves in the mirror and new changes needed to happen,” Kendall said, referring to a meeting after the St. John’s loss four games ago. “We’ve done that, and as long as we remember what we said then, we’ll be fine.”
There was a time when the Panthers shuddered at the thought of playing in the Coliseum — they lost 20 of their first 23 games there — but they’re perfect in their past three visits and have beaten WVU five times overall by at least 20 points each time.
Still, the Mountaineers are capable of pulling upsets, as evidenced by wins over LSU, George Washington and North Carolina State. They throw teams off with their 1-3-1 zone defense, and, when the shots are falling, outside threats such as Johannes Herber (8.3 points per game), Patrick Beilein (8.9) and Kevin Pittsnogle (7.9) can do damage. Problem is, Pittsnogle is 23 of 68 from the field (33.8 percent), Herber is 20 for 61 (32.7) and Beilein 19 for 69 (27.5) during this nine-game free-fall. Beilein was leading the Big East in 3-point shooting in December, but now he’s sixth.
“All teams go through difficult stretches,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “It’s a long season and a lot of things come into play. They shoot a lot of 3-pointers and shooting comes down to a lot of things. … They’re very dangerous in a lot of things they do. They have big guys who can step out and score, and they’ve beaten a lot of good teams.”
Perhaps, the Panthers will be next.
“Unfortunately, Pitt has had the best of this rivalry for several occasion, but hopefully, it’s something we can start to change,” said the elder Beilein.
|No. 16 Pitt (15-3, 5-2 Big East) at West Virginia (12-7, 2-6)|
Game info: 6 p.m., WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.
TV info: ESPN2
Radio info: Fox Sports 970-AM; NewsTalk 104.7-FM
|Around the Panthers|
WVU leads the overall series, 89-77, but Pitt has won the past five. This marks the seventh time in 12 games that WVU has faced a ranked opponent, with wins over then-No. 17 N.C. State on Jan. 1 and then-No. 20 George Washington on Dec. 29. The Mountaineers are coming off a 62-50 loss at undefeated Boston College. They’ve lost seven of nine since a 10-0 start and No. 21 ranking.