Almost immediately after former Cincinnati and Kansas State head coach Bob Huggins accepted West Virginia's offer to take over the basketball program at his alma mater, Big East basketball fans were confronted with two very natural questions: how would former WVU coach John Beilein's returning players adjust to the mercurial Huggins; and, how would Huggins adjust to the type of players Beilein had recruited to fit his particular style of play. There were many who were skeptical, but the results so far have probably exceeded many fans' expectations, including those of some Mountaineer faithful.
West Virginia is 10-3, with its only losses being by two points to Top 10 Tennessee, by six points in double overtime to a solid Oklahoma team (that is also 10-3 and played Memphis tough at Memphis), and to a quality Notre Dame team in South Bend. Among the Mountaineers' victims are New Mexico State, which lost to WVU by 14 points, Auburn, which lost by 29 points, and Duquesne, which lost by 24 points – the same Duquesne team that lost by only five points to Pittsburgh in early December when the Panthers were at full strength.
So what can Marquette fans expect Sunday when MU visits Morgantown? For one thing, contrary to popular belief, they will see a team with decent athleticism. Starting point guard Darris Nichols, small forward Da'Sean Butler, and power forward Joe Alexander all possess quickness as well as solid ball skills. Sophomore reserves Joe Mazzulla and Wellington Smith have the type of athleticism that any team would welcome, and freshman John Flowers is also a good athlete.
When one thinks of West Virginia's offense during the Beilein era, one gets images of open lay ups resulting from backdoor cuts and pinpoint passes on one hand, and an incredible barrage of three-point shots on the other. There aren't as many backdoor cuts these days, but the Mountaineers do rank third in the conference with 17.9 assists per game. Plus, Huggins has the Mountaineers firing away from behind the arc at a prodigious clip. In fact, WVU averages approximately 23 treys per game (only four per game fewer than a year ago), which ranks second among conference teams, and they lead the league in three-pointers made at just under nine per contest. WVU's three-point field goals percentage of 37.6% is actually a shade higher than last year's percentage of 37.5%.
Against Notre Dame, Huggins played an aggressive man-to-man style. Yet he occasionally mixed in a trapping zone as well. After years of watching WVU play Beilein's trademark 1-3-1 zone exclusively, it's a bit strange to see WVU play any man at all, but the Mountaineers have been effective on the defensive end of the court. They are giving up only 60.5 points per game (4th in the league) and allowing a field goal percentage of 38.9% (5th in the conference).
Under Beilein, the Mountaineers were generally last in the league in rebounding, and they still have difficulty on both the offensive and defensive boards, ranking 12th in the league in offensive rebounding and 11th in defensive rebounding.
Part of the problem is a lack of size. Jamie Smalligan is 7'0", but he averages only 14.3 mpg. Most of the time, the tallest player on the floor for WVU is 6'8" Joe Alexander. No one else is taller than 6'7". Marquette should be able to get its share of offensive boards, and on the defensive end Tom Crean's crew has a good chance of holding the Mountaineers to one shot most of the time.
Here's a look at West Virginia's probable starters and their top reserves:
Darris Nichols – the 6'2" senior point guard is one of the most under-rated players in the Big East. He doesn't get the publicity of UConn's A.J. Price, Seton Hall's Eugene Harvey, or Dominic James, but he is one of the most efficient guards in the conference. He is averaging 10.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 3.5 apg. He has an outstanding assist/turnover ratio of 2.65/1.00 (4th in the conference). In fact, he has only 17 turnovers in 13 games.
Nichols' quickness gives him the ability to beat his defender off the dribble and get into the lane. But if his opponent plays off him, the left-hander can drain the three-pointer (38.5% on treys this year and 42.9% last year). For some reason, however, Nichols has not shot well against better competition. Against Tennessee, New Mexico State, Auburn, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame he is a combined 17 of 51 from the field (33.3%) and 3 of 16 (18.8%) from three-point territory.
On defense, he uses his lateral quickness effectively. He does a good job of staying in front of his man and denying dribble penetration.
Alex Ruoff – the 6'6' junior off guard has really developed the past two years. After hardly playing as a freshman, he proved to be one of the most versatile backcourt players in the conference last season when he averaged 10.3 ppg and 5.3 apg. This year he is averaging 16.2 ppg (8th in the league). The biggest improvement is his three-point shooting, which has climbed from 33.7% last year to 44.8% this season. In fact, he is hitting a league-leading 3.3 treys per game.
Ruoff has excellent passing skills, but he is more than a highly-skilled player. He also has superb court awareness and makes excellent decisions. One of the keys for MU will be to keep him from getting open looks. They can't let him get hot like he did against Auburn when he scored 28 points and drilled 6 of 8 treys.
Jamie Smalligan – the 7'0" senior center generally starts, but he's averaging only 14.3 mpg, 3.4 ppg, and 2.5 rpg. Smalligan likes to stay on the perimeter rather than mix it up underneath the hoop, but he is shooting only30.6% from the field, including a miserable 15.2% from behind the arc.
Defensively, Smalligan can also be a liability, especially against skilled, athletic big men. He may have trouble matching up with Barro if Ooze is as aggressive as he was against Providence.
Da'Sean Butler – the 6'7" forward was one of the top sixth-men in the conference last year as a freshman. This year he's averaging 12.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg. He has a solid mid-range game, but he is also dangerous from deep as his 40.7% three-point percentage illustrates. He had one of his best games against highly-ranked Tennessee with 16 points and 7 boards. Overall, he's scored in double figures in 10 of 13 games.
Joe Alexander – the 6'8" forward is an excellent athlete with terrific hops. He is averaging 15.4 ppg and a team-leading 6.5 rpg. He has a very good mid-range game, and he can put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop. He is also an effective offensive rebounder. He hasn't been much of a threat from behind the arc (31.3%), but he is deadly from the foul line. In fact, his free throw percentage of 88.2% leads all conference players.
Defensively, the high-flying junior leads the Mountaineers in blocked shots with 22 in 13 games. However, he is prone to occasional silly fouls, and, despite adding some muscle since last season, strong, physical players can use their strength to overpower him at times. Still, he is one of the better all-around players in the league.
Wellington Smith – the 6'7" sophomore saw limited playing time (4.6 mpg) as a freshman, not uncommon under Beilein. But this year he's averaging 6.2 ppg and 3.7 rpg in 19.5 mpg. It's not unusual for Huggins to go with three forwards – Alexander, Butler, and Smith. He gives up size when he takes Smalligan out, but he gains considerable quickness and overall athleticism. Smith has limited range, and he's not a very good free throw shooter – only 50.0%. But he works hard and may well play at least half the game against MU.
Joe Mazzulla – the 6'2" sophomore has provided a spark off the bench for the Mountaineers. He is very quick and very aggressive, often providing instant offense. He's not afraid to attack the basket, and he is adept at pushing the ball up-court whenever he can. He is averaging 6.6 ppg and 2.7 apg in only 15.8 mpg. At times Huggins plays Mazzulla and Nichols together, and they work quite well in tandem.
John Flowers – the 6'7" freshman forward can definitely score as his average of 6.5 ppg in only 11.9 mpg shows. Against Duquesne he had 13 points in 18 minutes. He does most of his damage close to the hoop and draws his share of fouls. However, he is a horrible free throw shooter – 9 of 23 (39.1%), so MU may well foul him rather than give up an easy two.
People tend to forget that this is essentially the same team that finished a very respectable 9-7 in the conference a year ago and won 27 games overall on its way to the NIT title; the only real loss was forward Frank Young although Rob Summers did provide an extra big body up front. Everyone else of consequence returned.
But perhaps more importantly, contrary to the expectations of some, coach and players appear to be on the same page. The team has responded well to Huggins' intense coaching style and demanding personality, and Huggins is using the strengths of the individual players Beilein recruited, which is exactly what fans should have anticipated given Huggins' track record and passionate desire to succeed/win.
WVU will be tough to beat on its home court, especially after the loss to Notre Dame. Huggins doesn't want to start his first Big East conference season 0 – 2. The Mountaineers will be fired up, and Morgantown is one of the toughest places to play in the league.
MU fans, as well as the Three Amigos and Barro and Burke, will almost certainly recall the last excursion to West Virginia. It wasn't pretty. Coming out with a win this time around will be a real challenge. Any time a team goes up against a Huggins-coached squad, expect a war.
Potential Match Ups
When Smalligan is in the game, fans will probably see fairly traditional match ups: Barro/Burke matched with Smalligan, Hayward with Alexander, Matthews with Butler, McNeal with Ruoff, and James with Nichols (even though Crean has had Jerel pick up the opponents' point guard quite a bit this year, James gives up seven inches to Ruoff, which could be a problem, especially since Ruoff has a quick release and is comfortable in the mid-range game as well as on the perimeter).
How the teams will defend each other when the Mountaineer big man is on the bench for anywhere from 20-30 minutes is the real question.
Alexander, because of his quickness, ball handling skill, and leaping ability, is a very tough match up for either Barro or Burke. Will that lead Crean to go with Fitzgerald and Hayward in the same lineup, along with three of his five guards, or could he play "small ball" for parts of the game and utilize four guards along with Hayward? If he chooses the latter, MU will be at a size disadvantage at every position.
In short, fans could be treated to a fascinating chess match between two excellent coaches.