By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Two programs, long and bitter rivals named Pittsburgh and West Virginia, each going in the opposite direction, collide tonight at the Coliseum.
Both are at crucial moments in their seasons.
One will win and take a huge step forward.
One will lose and face the purgatory of the NIT or worse.
It’s that big a deal that a sellout crowd and a national television audience will look on.
This is one of those take-no-prisoners renewals of the Backyard Brawl, the 183rd renewal.
A week ago the roles were reversed for WVU and Pitt. The Mountaineers were winning and overachieving; Pitt was without its point guard Tray Woodall, winless in the Big East and seemingly coming apart.
Even its top recruiting prize, freshman center Khem Birch, had exited stage right and left school even though he was starting.
Don’t look now, but Pitt has Woodall back, has won two straight, the last one over a top 10 Georgetown team, and is flying high, confident and ambitious, for there remains half a Big East season and the Big East tournament.
“We’re going to be ready,” Pitt sophomore forward Lamar Patterson was quoted as saying after beating the Hoyas. “Our momentum is going right now, and we just want to keep it rolling.”
On the other side the momentum has deserted the Mountaineers in a New York moment. They went to St. John’s and played an uninspired, lethargic game and were blown out by a team that had only one Big East victory at the moment.
Forgivable? Perhaps, considering the Mountaineers are so young that they don’t know enough to play every game as if it is your last and because there was Syracuse waiting right behind that game.
Syracuse, though, turned into another psychological disaster, a referee’s blown call taking away a last chance for victory, leaving them in a two-game losing streak and with no one knowing how they would react.
No one, that is, except for Coach Bob Huggins, who was confident that he would be able to put the pieces back together by the time Pitt came to town.
“We’ll get them back,” he said. “If we don’t, then they’re going to the NIT. I never have been unable to get them back.”
It doesn’t take much to turn things around, as Pitt found out.
Woodall was the missing piece. He had sat out for 11 games with an abdominal strain, one that Coach Jamie Dixon said might have put someone else out for the season.
Him being out changed everything about the Panthers, forced them to try shooting guard Ashton Gibbs at the point, changed the way the ball was distributed and the way they played defense.
“Woodall gives us ball handling,” Dixon said. “He’s probably our most vocal leader. He understands what we are trying to do. Because of that, I made him a captain as a junior, which we don’t usually do.
“The guys have a lot of confidence in him. He was playing at a high number before he went down. The games before he was hurt were very impressive.”
Well, he’s not at the top of his game yet, going 1 for 7 from the field against Georgetown, but there were 10 assists and that made the difference.
“We need to play well, we understand that,” Dixon said.
“We’ve played well there before, and we will do everything we can to play well (Monday).”
Pitt has won the last three meetings between the two schools and nine of the past 12.
Over the years they have handled WVU’s best player Kevin Jones well, holding him to nine and 12 points in two victories last year and to 61 points in seven career games.
Jones, of course, is a different species this year, having scored 20 points in 14 games this year, including the last seven in a row.
What West Virginia has to do is find a way to get senior guard Truck Bryant back on track, as he has been in a long shooting slump. He had a brief spurt against Syracuse in the second half but finished 2 for 9 from 3-point range and 4 for 11 overall. In his last six games he is shooting 27.2 percent while hitting just 24.1 percent from 3.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.