To understand what the Bruins face in West Virginia, you first need to understand the Mountaineers' coach, John Beilein. Beilein is in his 4th year at West Virginia after stints at Canisius and Richmond. His Mountaineer teams have gotten steadily better, culminating in last season's Elite Eight run. This season, Beilein has WVU on a tear, as they have won their last 11 games. Now you would think that Beilein would have an advantage here, being from the Big East and all, with knowledge of Ben Howland and his style of play. But in reality, Beilein has only faced Howland for one season, and the Pitt team that Howland had in 2002-2003 was built very differently than this UCLA team. Conversely, Howland isn't that familiar with West Virginia or Beilein. But Howland does have one advantage in that West Virginia's offensive style is closer to that of a PAC-10 team rather than one from the Big East.
West Virginia runs a very unusual offensive scheme, the kind that most teams don't see much so it's tough to get prepare for. Their offense is a very good motion that is predicated on great screens and setting up all of the players on the floor for a possible three-point shot. In fact, WVU has attempted almost 50% of their shots on the season from behind the arc. As a team, they are shooting at 37% from the 3-point line. In their offense, the ball moves very quickly from side to side and you have to be absolutely committed to defense in order to even slow them down. As a result of this offense, the Mountaineers can go on huge runs that are reminiscent of Arizona in their glory days. However, when you live by the outside shot, you die by the outside shot, and WVU can also go into huge slumps that kill their scoring. In their three losses, West Virginia went through long periods of missed shots that ultimately helped lead to their losing, despite the fact that they actually shot well in two of those losses, against Texas and LSU. Another shortcoming in the West Virginia offensive scheme is that generally at least four of the players on the floor are away from the basket when a shot goes up. This leads to some really poor rebounding totals. West Virginia may be the only team in the top 15 in the country to have a negative rebounding ratio, and when you look at their offensive rebounding numbers vis-à-vis opponents, the ratio gets worse. If you are going to shoot poorly from behind the arc and not get to the offensive glass, then you are going to go through some real slumps of one-shot-and-done, so it is imperative on the Bruins to rebound well on the defensive glass.
On defense, Beilein tends to show many different looks at an opponent. He is especially fond of a Temple-like 1-3-1 match-up zone that the Mountaineers run. West Virginia is not exceptionally quick, but they are smart and Beilein is a good coach, so the switching defenses, especially the 1-3-1, tend to give opponents trouble. In fact, WVU has forced 152 more turnovers on the season than they have committed, so the Bruins need to do a good job of taking care of the ball. However, running so many zones and gimmick defenses tend to lead to poor rebounding totals. That's WVU's weakness; they are a bad rebounding team.
Coach Howland and the Bruins have seen similar offenses this year when they have played Arizona and Washington, at least in terms of those teams shooting a lot of threes. The difference is that WVU doesn't set a lot of ball screens. So the Bruins should at least be used to the fact that they really need to have superior effort in terms of their perimeter defense. Also, all of the Bruins are going to have to rebound because the usual suspects, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ryan Hollins and Ryan Wright, are going to be pulled away from the basket by the Mountaineers because all of the Mountaineers can and will shoot from behind the arc.
In terms of personnel, the Mountaineers present some intriguing issues. At "center," WVU starts senior Kevin Pittsnogle, (6'11" 250 lb.), who isn't your typical post player in that he will do everything in his power to get outside for a shot. He leads the team in scoring, (20.6 PPG) and rebounding (6.2 RPG), and is generally the face associated with the program. He is a legitimate star who will be plying his trade at the next level. He shoots over 50% from the floor and 47% form behind the arc, where he has taken 91 3-point attempts. He plays a lot of minutes, (over 35 per game), and he is almost always the first option offensively for the Mountaineers. He does have holes that the Bruins can exploit, though. He is a tough young man, but he doesn't necessarily play like that. His rebounding average should be higher for a player his size and for the minutes he plays. He also tends to get frustrated when defended by a very long, quick and athletic player. The guess is that Ryan Hollins is going to see a lot of time in this game if for no other reason than to defend Pittsnogle. Hollins is quicker and longer than Pittsnogle, but Pittsnogle is a smarter player with a very quick shot.
At one forward, the starter will be senior Mike Gansey (6'4" 205 lb.), a transfer from St. Bonaventure. If Pittsnogle isn't the best player on West Virginia, then Gansey is. Gansey averages 19.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG and he has a better than 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Gansey plays much bigger than his size and he is deceptively quick. He is one of the few Mountaineers that can create his own shot and he shoots better than 62% from the floor and exactly 50% from the 3-point line. He is a leader and a very smart player. It is almost certain that Arron Afflalo will be matched up on Gansey. I have seen WVU's schedule and their opponents and there isn't a single player that Gansey has faced that plays defense like Afflalo. This is perhaps the most-anticipated match-up of the day and the game may ride on how well Afflalo defends Gansey and keeps him off the boards.
The other forward is junior Frank Young, (6'5" 220 lb.), a role player who does many of the little things that a very good team needs in order to be successful. He averages 8.8 PPG even though he is usually the fourth or fifth option on offense. He only averages 3.2 RPG, but that belies his activity around the basket. He will shoot the three, and his average is low, comparatively to the rest of the team, at 34%. He is another Mountaineer that will sit behind the arc more than he will shoot inside.
The shooting guard is senior Joe Herber, (6'6" 215 lb.), a native of Germany and a typical European player that can shoot well but isn't exactly a banger, although he averages 3.9 RPG. Herber is on the floor for almost 32 MPG and you would think that his rebounding average would be better. Herber, who averages 9.3 PPG, does like to shoot inside the arc and he is the one Mountaineer who likes to get to the basket. If the Bruins are going to let one Mountaineer get open looks from behind the arc, Herber is the man. He averages less than 23% from the 3-point line. Herber makes up for this by being a very good free-throw shooter, averaging 82% for the season. And Herber is a superior passer, having 94 assists on the year to only 29 turnovers. The question for the Bruins is whom do you use to defend Herber. Do you match-up Luc on him, even though that will pull Luc away from the basket, or do you go with Mike Roll whose lack of quickness might be exposed? Or do you play a bigger line-up with Alfred Aboya? Or do you go smaller with Darren Collison and put Jordan Farmar on Herber? This one is a tough call, but the guess is that Luc will start on Herber with Roll starting on Young.
The final starter is senior guard J.D. Collins, (5'10" 180 lb.), who isn't the shooter that his teammates are, having taken less shots this season than Pittsnogle or Gansey have attempted threes. He does distribute the ball, though, having a better than 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He is quick and will be a tough match-up for Farmar or Collison.
The two bench players that the Bruins must concern themselves with are senior guard Patrick Beilein (6'4" 205 lb.), a shooting specialist who has attempted more threes than anyone else on the team, and sophomore point Darris Nichols (6'2" 180 lb.), who basically spells Collins. Both are good supporting players, although you can essentially let Collins shoot from the outside, where he averages less than 18% from behind the arc. Beilein, however, is another Ryan Appleby and the Bruins must know where he is on the floor at all times.
With all of the offensive firepower that WVU has, you'd wonder if the Bruins even have a chance. They do, and the reason is that WVU's defensive tendencies play into the Bruins' strengths. The three losses that WVU has suffered were all to teams that can exploit West Virginia inside and have players that can find the seams in a zone or attack a man defense and get to the hoop. In their two biggest wins, against Villanova and Oklahoma, the Mountaineers faced teams that really live and die by the outside shot, and Oklahoma was cold that night (plus they aren't as good as advertised), and Villanova's weakness is guarding the perimeter. The Bruins are more like Texas, LSU and Kentucky in that they can guard the perimeter. The Bruins are stronger and more athletic than the Mountaineers and they have the kind of players in Farmar, Afflalo and Roll that can shoot WVU out of the zone defense. What West Virginia lacks in quickness and defense they more than make up for with their experience and their ability to truly play "team" ball. WVU shouldn't have even stayed close to Villanova on paper. They have a big experience edge on the Bruins.
The Mounatineers are going to do what got them to be so successful, so don't expect any surprises. The game is really going to hinge on whether the Bruins show the defensive intensity necessary to guard the perimeter for 40 minutes. They need to dominate the boards, essentially holding WVU to one shot per possession. On offense, the Bruins must dictate tempo. West Virginia wants to get up and down the floor, like Washington. The Bruins need to play like they did in the first half of the Washington game. They have to attack the weaknesses in the WVU defense and exploit their athletic advantage. Finally, to beat WVU you only really need to shut down one of their two big guns, Gansey or Pittsnogle. Pittsnogle has been the easier one to shut down this year, having several games in single digits, but the match-up of Afflalo on Gansey might be a better place to look for the defensive stops necessary to win. This should be a fun game to watch, and don't discount the fact that the Bruins have had an extra day to prepare. This match-up is not as scary as some may think. A team that plays defense can always beat a team that looks to outscore you. With that in mind, I think that the Mountaineers are going to have a long trip back to Morgantown.
West Virginia 67