West Virginia [11-4, 1-2 in Big East Conference play] enters Sunday game battle tested, having faced a quartet of challenging opponents [Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Marquette, and Louisville] in their last four games. Although the Mountaineers went 1-3 in that stretch, their lone victory was an impressive 79-64 blowout against the #11 ranked team in the country [Marquette].
Meet the Mountaineers
Huggins has instituted a more rough-and-tumble style of play than the one employed by his predecessor, John Beilein. The leading scorer for the Mountaineers is 6-6 junior guard Alex Rouoff, who averages 16.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. The versatile Rouoff is second on the team in assists, dishing out 3 per game. As the primary outside weapon for the Mountaineers, Rouoff is dangerous from three point range, where he connects on an impressive 45.1% of his attempts [51 for 113]. After watching Cincinnati guard Deonta Vaughn victimize the Syracuse zone earlier this week, the Orange defenders will have to do a much better job of finding Rouoff on Sunday, to prevent this talented zone buster from getting open looks.
Rouoff is joined in the backcourt by senior point guard Darris Nichols, who averages 10.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. Although the veteran Nichols focuses primarily on orchestrating the Mountaineer attack, he can also be a dangerous shooter [38.2% from three point range]. He is a solid defender who acts as the main defensive catalyst for his team by putting pressure on the opposing team's primary ball handler.
Huggins has a rugged tandem of versatile forwards at his disposal, both of whom are double-figure scorers. 6-8 junior Joe Alexander leads the Mountaineers in rebounding [6.1] and is second on the team in scoring at 16.1 per game. He has been on a roll of late, scoring 19 and 22 in West Virginia's last two games. Alexander is an inside / outside threat, whose range extends to beyond the three point arc.
Joining Alexander up front is bruising forward Da'Sean Butler, a 6-7 225 sophomore from Newark, New Jersey. Butler averages 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest, and like Alexander is an inside / out scoring threat who is equally adept at scoring in the paint or burning the opposition from the perimeter. For the season, he has connected on 55% of his field goal attempts, including 45% from three point range [14 of 31]. The Syracuse defenders are going to have to keep bodies on both Alexander and Butler to prevent a recurrence of the rebounding exploitation that was evident in the Cincinnati game.
7-0 265 pound center Jamie Smalligan, a transfer from Butler University, rounds out the starting frontcourt for the Mountaineers. He averages 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per contest, but is another big man at Huggins's disposal who is a three point shooting threat. Although he doesn't post big scoring numbers, Smalligan compliments the scoring of forwards Alexander / Butler by drawing his defender away from the paint to account for his perimeter prowess.
Burly sophomore guard Joe Mazzulla [6-2, 210 pounds] provides backcourt depth for the Mountaineers, averaging 6.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in just over 15 minutes per game. He is another dangerous shooter, connecting on 52.7% of his field goal attempts overall, including 42.9% of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Rounding out the Mountaineer rotation are forwards John Flowers and Wellington Smith, and guard Ted Talkington. Flowers, a 6-7 freshman from Waldorf, Maryland, is tied for fifth in team scoring at 6.3 per game. Smith [6-7, 215 pounds] is another combination forward who can score inside or outside; he averages 5.5 points per contest, while shooting 32.9% from three point range.
Talkington plays sparingly, but has connected on 50% of his three points attempts in limited duty [5.6 minutes per game].
Getting a victory in Sunday's game is important for both teams. For Syracuse, the game against West Virginia provides another difficult road test, and an opportunity to display that the lessons learned in the Cincinnati loss are not wasted. The Mountaineers need a win to prove that the Marquette victory was not a fluke, and to climb back into the top half of the Big East conference standings.
In order to escape Morgantown with a win, Syracuse will need to do the following:
* Demonstrate more tenacity on both the offensive and defensive boards—Cincinnati dominated the Orange on the glass, often limiting Syracuse possessions to one-and-done. The Orange will have to do a much better job crashing the boards to limit West Virginia scoring opportunities.
* Find and quickly close out on the West Virginia shooters, to prevent the prolific Mountaineer perimeter attack from exploiting the Orange zone defense.
* Get Arinze Onuaku involved early and often—despite averaging more than 14 points for the season, Onuaku only converted one field goal attempt against the Bearcats, and was frequently harassed by Cincinnati double teams into turnovers and bad shot attempts.
* Exercise more patience on offense—the Orange spent the majority of the Cincinnati game befuddled by the aggressive, attacking Bearcat defense. The more experienced Cincinnati players were able to prevent the potent Syracuse attack from getting on track…and the inexperienced Orange responded by engaging in too much one-on-one play.
* Eliminate unforced turnovers—the Orange played right into Cincinnati's hands on Wednesday by turning the ball over at an alarming rate, undermining the team's ability to mount a successful comeback attempt. The Orange will have to do a much better job taking care of the ball against West Virginia to have a shot at securing a win on Sunday.
The West Virginia fans are notorious for creating one of the more raucous, difficult road environments in the Big East conference. The Syracuse players will have to show more poise than they demonstrated against Cincinnati in order to overcome the Mountaineers' home court advantage.
Huggins—the long time Cincinnati head coach—will look to impose a similar level of scrappiness into Sunday's game as what the Orange faced against his former team, in order to prevent the finesse-oriented Syracuse Orange from settling into a groove. The Orange will need to compete on the glass and get better performances from starters Onuaku and Jonny Flynn to spring a hard-fought road upset.
West Virginia 64 Syracuse 63