This is the home-and-home reciprocation game from last year's four-point Mountaineer win at Pauley Pavilion. At that point last season, UCLA was still very inconsistent on offense while West Virginia was being discussed as a darkhorse candidate for the Final Four. Fast forward one year and the Bruins are the team with serious Final Four and national title aspirations while West Virginia is fighting to make the NCAA Tournament. That's not to say West Virginia is without talent; they're just young. And let's not forget the crazy defensive and offensive schemes that Coach John Beilein runs.
WVU sits at 7-3 in the Big East and 18-4 overall. Their non-conference schedule, outside of the UCLA game, is weak. Their toughest games were a home win against NC State and a neutral-game loss against Arkansas. As is typical of a young team, the Mountaineers are much better at home than on the road. All of their losses have come away from Morgantown. UCLA may be catching WVU at the right time: On Wednesday night they host Jaime Dixon and Pitt. The Mountaineers will pour everything they've got into winning that game because it's a conference game, but in this case, for a team on the NCAA bubble, it doesn't make sense. Beating UCLA is far more important for WVU's NCAA prospects than beating Pitt. UCLA has a higher RPI ranking, it is a non-conference game (which the selection committee looks at as gold, especially a high-profile one this late in the year), and the Bruins come from a higher-ranked RPI conference and are the #2 ranked team in the country.
The game is also important for UCLA because it's an out-of-conference game and it's on national television, giving the Bruins another chance at positive exposure on a national scale. Plus, it's a non-conference road game against a BCS conference team.
The leader of WVU, both vocally and through his play, is senior forward Frank Young (6'5" 215 lbs.). Young leads the Mountaineers in scoring at 14.5 PPG and is third in rebounding at 4.2 RPG. He has hit almost twice as many three-point shots as anyone else on the squad. Most importantly, he is the lone holdover from Beilein's top players on last year's team. Young knows how to win and knows how to convey that to his teammates. He is fitter than last year so that he is more explosive (although not especially so) and makes better decisions. The best guess is that Coach Howland will put Arron Afflalo on Young as he is both an inside and outside threat and he can put the ball on the floor. Because WVU runs almost exclusively a zone defense, this individual match-up will only be on one end of the floor.
The point guard is junior Darris Nichols (6'2" 190 lbs.), who is solid, but not spectacular. He is careful with the ball, averaging a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He averages 10.2 PPG on 48% shooting from the floor and 38% from behind the arc. Of the key starters, he takes the least amount of shots, because he looks to get his teammates involved first. He's relatively quick, but Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook have faced quicker. His decision making, though, is generally spot-on. In this way Nichols is very much like Texas A&M's Acie Law IV. Law gave the Bruins some fits when they faced off earlier this season.
The ‘2' guard for Beilein is really a small forward, sophomore Alex Ruoff (6'6" 210 lbs.). The fact that Ruoff has size may hurt the Bruins, but the good news is that he is almost strictly an outside shooter. Enter Josh Shipp. Shipp, who has been criticized for his defense at times this season, has done well against players who don't like putting the ball on the floor, like Ron Coleman of Michigan and Daven Harmeling of Washington State. Ruoff averages 9.6 PPG, but only shoots 38% from the floor. That's because over 2/3 of his shots come from behind the arc. Like many of his teammates, Ruoff averages around 3 RPG. Ruoff actually leads the team in assists with 120 and also has close to a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. That tells you something about the nature of WVU's offense.
At the power forward spot is junior Joe Alexander (6'8" 200 lbs.), who is second on the team in scoring at 12.7 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 4.6 RPG. Like most of his teammates, Alexander shoots well from the 3-point line, averaging 38%. But most of his shots come from inside of 18 feet. He is more of a jump shooter than a banger, but he fits in Beilein's offense well. He isn't very athletic and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should be able to neutralize him on the offensive end if Mbah a Moute continues to play like he has the past few games. Unlike his teammates (who are mostly around 75-80% from the free throw line), Alexander is not a good free throw shooter. He averages only 58% from the line.
In the post is senior Rob Summers (7' 240 lbs.). Summers is strictly an inside player, having only attempted one three all year, while playing 22 MPG. The Bruins may see more of junior post Jamie Smalligan (7"' 255 lbs.) because Smalligan is more of an outside threat and can put the ball on the floor. Both players average just under 5 PPG and Summers is second on the team in rebounding at 4.5 RPG. Summers has played more minutes, mostly due to his shooting percentage (67% from the floor), although many of his shots come on put-backs from long jumpers by his teammates who spread out the defense. Smalligan (you gotta love that name for such a big kid), however, has been getting more time recently. He is more apt to step outside or put the ball on the floor. In terms of match-ups, Lorenzo Mata should have an easier time guarding Summers as he is a true back-to-the-basket player. Both Mata and Alfred Aboya should be athletic enough to stay with either big man.
The real question mark for the Mountaineers will be the play of freshman Da'Sean Butler (6'7" 205 lbs.), who is probably WVU's most physically gifted player. The most athletic player on the roster, Butler is able to shoot outside (37 % on ‘3's), take it to the hoop (53% from the floor and second on the team in free throw attempts), and he can post up, being very comfortable with his back to the basket. He is only averaging 10 PG, but that is increasing recently. He scored 21 points in his last game. If WVU has to go man on defense, he is the best on-ball defender that Beilein has. When Butler is in the game, expect Howland to match-up either Luc or Afflalo on him, and expect Butler to get starter's minutes.
The only other player to get even 8 MPG off the bench is freshman point guard Joe Mazzulla (6'2" 180 lbs.). Mazzulla's job is simply to give Nichols a moment's rest here and there. When Mazulla is in the game Collison or Westbrook can really attack him defensively since Mazzulla isn't that quick and his ball-handling skills are average at best.
This is really a game that is going to come down to tactics rather than individual match-ups. That's because Beilein will employ what has become his trademark, unorthodox 1-3-1 zone defense. This defense traps to the wings and the corners and does a good job of moving opponents laterally. The WVU zone has probably replaced Syracuse's 2-3 and John Chaney's Temple 1-3-1 match-up as the most effective zone in college basketball. The way to beat this kind of a zone is to run a standard 2-1-2 offense. Expect the Bruins to have Afflalo and Collison on the top and Mata and Shipp on the bottom with Luc in the middle. On the top you want guys who can dribble into the seams. On the bottom you want players who can hit the 8-10 foot jumper from the short corner, which is inevitably open against this defense. Both Mata and Shipp can do that, with Shipp also possessing the ability to pump and drive. Mike Roll would be great in this "role," too, as he can do those things plus give a good entry pass to a cutting Luc coming down from the free throw line. Either Aboya or James Keefe could take Luc's spot in the middle as they both can turn and go to the hoop or pass or shoot, although Keefe might be more effective in this position. Russell Westbrook would obviously be on top with his ability to penetrate into the seams.
The other way to attack this kind of a zone is to hit your outside shots. The Bruins are much better at doing that this season.
But I'm not so worried about the Bruins on the offensive end, but rather on the defensive end. WVU runs a spread style offense that is similar to what Oregon runs and what Stanford did in the second half of the game in Palo Alto, at least in principle. WVU doesn't have the penetration skills of Oregon, but they rebound on the offensive end much better. They are better on the perimeter than Stanford, but they don't post up as well as the Cardinal. But the principle is the same; that teams that spread the Bruins out give them trouble, and West Virginia will spread them out. That's what scares me. The Mountaineers are playing much better than most anyone imagined at the beginning of the season, and they are playing at home and they are playing a style that gives the Bruins fits. The Bruins are more athletic and probably have better shooters. I think that's what the game is ultimately going to come down to; who shoots well from behind the arc.
Here's my prediction: This game stands a good chance of going to overtime.
West Virginia 77