Hoops Preview - West Virginia

How sweet it is! For the first time since 2006, the Washington Huskies (26-9, 11-7) will return to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Lining up on the other side of the court will be the powerful Mountaineers of West Virginia (29-6, 13-5). The game will be played at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY Thursday night at 4:27 p.m. PST.

The biggest news of this game so far has come from the West Virginia training room. Running the point for the Mountaineers will be Joe Mazzulla, a 6-foot-2 junior guard from Johnston, RI. He will replacing Darryl 'Truck' Bryant, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Brooklyn, NY who broke his foot, the school reported Tuesday.

Bryant, who has been the starter at the point the past two seasons, didn't put up the biggest stats for the Mountaineers - 9.3 points on 32 percent shooting - but he was their most dangerous outside threat this season, making 40 out of 127 three-point shots . His injury could have a huge effect in how they are able to run their offense and puts a big question mark on their already limited depth at the guard position.

Mazzulla has generally been West Virginia's first man off their bench. He is averaging 2.2 points a game on just 38 percent shooting. He plays an average of 14.9 minutes a game, averaging 2.3 assists along the way. His last start was in December of 2008, but multiple shoulder injuries have hampered his ability to shoot effectively.

West Virginia, who came into the NCAA Tournament ranked sixth in the final AP poll, beat Morgan State 77-50 and Missouri 68-59 to get to the Sweet 16. They have lost their last eight games at the Carrier Dome.

The last time Washington and West Virginia faced each other was in 1974, a game in which the Dawgs dominated 96-79 on a neutral court. It is the only time the two teams have played. Against Morgan State in the first round, West Virginia struggled early on and went down 10-0 to start the game.

Devin Ebanks, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward from Long Island, NY, led the resurgence with 16 points on 4-of-11 shooting from the field, 13 rebounds and two blocks.

Also playing a part in the win was Kevin Jones, 6-foot-8 sophomore forward from Mount Vernon, NY. He finished the game with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor, eight boards and a block.

On the defensive end, Da'Sean Butler, a 6-foot-7 senior forward from Newark, NJ, came away with five steals and six rebounds. He also had nine points on 4-of-11 shooting. In the next game against an undersized Missouri squad, Butler ran the show with an impressive 28 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field. He also had eight boards, two blocks and a steal.

Ebanks played all but one minute in the game and finished with 14 points on 3-of-9 shooting from the floor. He also had seven boards, three assists, two steals and a block.

The third player that finished with double-digits in scoring was Jones, who had 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting, nine rebounds and one block and steal.

As a team, West Virginia held Morgan State to just 29.5 percent shooting and kept Missouri down to 32.8 percent.

To start the season, West Virginia rolled off eleven-straight wins against the likes of Loyola (MD), The Citadel, Long Beach State, Texas A&M, Portland, Duquesne, Coppin State, Cleveland State, Mississippi, Seton Hall and Marquette. They have also beaten Rutgers, South Florida, Marshall, Ohio State, DePaul, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. John's, Providence, Villanova, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Morgan State and Missouri.

Their losses this year have come against Purdue, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Villanova, Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

The man calling all the shots for West Virginia is Bob Huggins, who is a Morgantown, WV native and Mountaineer alum. He currently carries a career record of 655-237 and started his coaching career as an assistant at West Virginia in 1977-1978. From there, he went to Ohio State as an assistant from 1978-1980 and then got his first head coaching job at Walsh, where he coached from 1980-1983.

Following his first head coaching gig, he went to Central Florida to be an assistant again. He finally got his first Division-1 head coaching job in 1984 when he took over at Akron. He remained there until 1989 before taking the reigns at Cincinnati, where he stayed until 2005. From there, he spent a year resurrecting Kansas State before coming back to Morgantown, where he has a 78-29 record.

Huggins has taken his teams to 18 NCAA appearances, including one Final Four, three Elite Eights and six Sweet 16's. This is his third straight NCAA Tourney appearance with West Virginia and his second Sweet 16 appearance. In 2007-2008 they made it to this round before being knocked off by Xavier 79-75 in overtime.

Despite the loss of Bryant, the Mountaineers' roster is a large one. They have two seniors, five juniors, four sophomores and five freshmen. Beyond that, they are a very tall team, with half their players 6-foot-7 or taller. Their biggest player is Deniz Kilicli, who is a 6-foot-9, 265-pound freshman from Istanbul, Turkey.

But it's Butler who has led the way all season for West Virginia, with 17.5 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the floor. He also pulls in 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest. He scored a season-high 33 points on 9-of-16 shooting against St. John's on Feb. 6, and is known for his buzzer-beaters. When the NBA Draft rolls around in July, he is projected to have his named called in the first round.

Perhaps the most effective player for West Virginia this season has been Jones, who averages 13.6 points a game on 53 percent shooting and 7.2 rebounds. He will likely be matching up down-low against Washington's Matthew Bryan-Amaning.

The third player in West Virginia's three-headed monster is Ebanks, who puts up an average of 12 points a game on 45 percent shooting. To go with that, he grabs 8.3 boards and a steal per game. His best game came against Seton Hall on Dec. 26 when he tallied 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field, 17 boards and seven assists. Ebanks has posted five double-doubles this season. If he enters this year's draft, it's projected that he would be a mid-first round pick.

The last player in the Mountaineers' expected starting lineup is Wellington Smith, a 6-foot-7 senior from Summit, NJ. On the season he is putting up 6.5 points a game on an efficient 47 percent from the field. He also pulls in four boards a game and has posted two double-doubles.

The bench for the Mountaineers doesn't account for many points or minutes, especially with Mazzulla now expected in the starting lineup. Look for John Flowers, a 6-foot-7 junior from Waldorf, MD, to be the man off the bench giving the forwards some rest. He is averaging 2.9 points on 44 percent shooting from the field and 2.3 rebounds in 14 minutes per game.

For the guards, Casey Mitchell, a 6-foot-4 junior from Savannah, GA, and Dalton Pepper, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Levittown, PA, should receive the lion's share of any playing time Huggins may want to dole out to his reserves. Jonnie West, a 6-foot-3 junior from Memphis, TN, has only played in 17 games this year; however he did pick up six minutes in the Mountaineers' first-round game against Morgan State.

As a whole, West Virginia averages 72.9 points on 43 percent shooting from the field, 70 percent from the line and 33 percent from beyond the arc. They also dish up 15.7 assists and pick up 11.6 steals a game.

On the other end of the court, they pull in 38.7 boards, 5.6 steals and four blocks. They limit their opponents to just 63.3 points a game.

West Virginia will be looking to pound the ball down low in this game and exploit the size advantage that they have over the Huskies, but that doesn't mean Butler won't be afraid to spot up for the three. WVU generally prefers to keep the score in the 60's and not the 80's.

The Mountaineers will try to keep the momentum in their favor and hold the Huskies to a reasonably-paced game. Washington won't out-physical them, but they can definitely out-run them if West Virginia allows them to dictate tempo. In an interview with ESPN's SportsCenter, Huggins declared that the Huskies are the fastest team in the country, so it's doubtful UW will be able to spring too many surprises on their opponent.

In some ways, West Virginia is a more talented version of USC. The depth in the Huskies' front court could be challenged if Bryan-Amaning gets into early foul trouble, but he does have Tyreese Breshers and Darnell Gant waiting to help if need be.

The winner of this game will await the winner of No. 1 seed Kentucky (34-2, 14-2) and the No. 12 seed upstart Cornell Big Red (29-4, 13-1). The Elite Eight game will take place on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. The winner of that game will be the East bracket representative to the Final Four, held this year in Indianapolis.


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