West Virginia Basketball: Backyard Brawl Looming as a Momentum Changer

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West Virginia Basketball: Backyard Brawl Looming as a Momentum Changer
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

What a difference a week makes.

With nearly three-quarters of the regular season completed, the general consensus around the West Virginia basketball team has for the most part been job well done.

Senior forward Kevin Jones has been a beast, leading the Big East in both scoring (20.9) and rebounding (11.4), in the process putting himself in the conversation for player of the year.

Freshmen point guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds have each established themselves as quality crunch-time players, and the bench has been surprisingly competent, with eight players averaging at least 12 minutes a night.

Not that things have been all sunshine and roses for the Mountaineers.

Truck Bryant is second on the team in scoring, averaging just over 17 points per game, but is shooting just 37 percent on the season. He has been known to disappear for large chunks of time, a habit he shares with fellow starter Deniz Kilicli.

Despite those hiccups and the inevitable inconsistency that comes from playing six newcomers, the team still stands at 15-7 on the season and from a distance seem like a safe bet to make the tournament.

Yet anyone who has followed the team over the past week knows that safe is hardly the right word to describe West Virginia right now.

The trouble started last Wednesday night when the Mountaineers turned in their worst performance of the season, looking sluggish and disinterested for the majority of their 78-62 loss to a 9-12 St. Johns squad that started five freshman.

Three days later the referees teamed up with No. 4 Syracuse to hand West Virginia a 63-61 defeat, and a team that was near the top of the Big East a week ago now finds itself in the middle of the pack.

A loss on Monday night against Pittsburgh would plunge them even further.

As if the Backyard Brawl needed any extra pressure.

Monday marks the 183rd all-time meeting between West Virginia and Pittsburgh and carries with it much more weight than just the bragging rights that both fanbases cherish so dearly.

The Mountaineers need this game to turn the tide of the last week and return its focus to moving up the Big East standings. On the other hand, Pittsburgh needs a win to keep their season afloat.

Picked in the preseason for a fourth place Big East finish, the Panthers backed up the hype by starting conference play 0-7 and find themselves just one game out of the Big East basement. They have won two in a row; however, and even if their season is a lost cause they would love nothing more than to prolong the West Virginia slump.

And that's why this has become such an important game for West Virginia.

After all, good teams, teams that can win in March, take care of business in these kinds of games. Especially when the game is at home, on national TV, and can effectively end their most-hated rivals' season. 

Are the Mountaineers one of those teams? For most of the season the answer appeared to be yes. In the last week, its been a no.

The prospect of beating Pittsburgh is usually more than enough to make the Backyard Brawl one of West Virginia's most meaningful games every season, but the events of the past week have raised the tension level even more.

And the way the young Mountaineers react to that pressure will go a long way to telling us how many more meaningful games they will play this season.

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