SCOUTING THE FIGHTING IRISH
This is a big one, likely the biggest regular season game against Notre Dame in more than a decade from West Virginia's perspective. The Mountaineers are in dire need of a marquee win and to defend its home floor, and a victory over the nation's eighth-rated team would go far in snapping the recent skid and bettering its NCAA chances. To do it against Mike Brey's senior-laden squad with a depleted roster would be an even bigger accomplishment. There are a trio of keys, foremost of which is actually being in the game in the rebounding battle. West Virginia was ripped on the boards by Pitt and Syracuse, and a similar performance against the Irish almost certainly forays into a loss. That means keeping the trio of Tyrone Nash, Tim Abromaitis and, if he plays, Carleton Scott (hamstring) at bay. All are 6-8 and between 218 and 232 pounds.
Nash is the most interior-based, and should be around the rim more often than the other two. He is excellent in the paint (12 ppg), and has stepped out for a three just once this season. WVU will need to move him away from the bucket and, as always with a very good opposing rebounder, get a body on him and remain physical. He gets to the line well; watch his free throw totals, as that could be an insight as to how many offensive rebounds West Virginia is allowing.
Abromaitis hits for 14 points and six rebounds and is an excellent outside shooter for his height. He has made 48 of 120 threes (40 percent) and is the best Irish free throw shooter at 81.4 percent. Half of his shots are from outside, and he will force a good Mountaineer rebounder with some height away from the bucket with his outside ability. He also gets to boards on the offensive end and is excellent at snaking between foes to grab rebounds for putback chances. Still, his main weapon is the three; control that first, then worry about the rebounds. Scott, listed as probable to play, is the three man. He averages 12 points and a team-best seven rebounds. He doesn't take as many shots as the other two, but is equally good from anywhere on the floor and can hit the three. Scott is also the best Notre Dame shot blocker with 37, and his length is a major impediment on both ends. He runs the floor well, finishes in transition and has perhaps the finest overall game on the squad. This is a tough match-up that likely goes to Flowers. He cannot get into foul trouble, as he is one of the few Mountaineers – perhaps the only one – capable of matching Scott's length and overall athleticism on each end. This is the battle of the game in terms of raw ability. Flowers must use his talents to try and limit Scott. The latter is more polished on the offensive end, but rarely faces a foe with the shot-block ability of Flowers (first in the Big East).
The offense is triggered by point guard Ben Hansbrough (6-3, 202 lbs.). The senior averages a team-best 17.3 points per game to go with about four rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes. Hansbrough has a very good shot, is fundamentally sound and sees the court well. He has 103 assists against 58 turnovers and can get to the line, where he makes 81 percent. This isn't the quickest point guard the Mountaineers will face, but he has very solid height and is a tough, physical player. This is as good a straight-up, skilled, physical guard challenge as Mazzulla has had this season. He must challenge Hansbrough and keep him from getting into the lane and pressuring the rim for kickout chances. Shooting guard Scott Martin (6-8, 219 lbs.), another Irish player with good length, nets 10 points with five rebounds a game. Yet another upperclassman (the Irish start five seniors), Martin isn't as good of a shooter as Abromaitis or Hansbrough and doesn't get to the line especially well. His scoring is a bit under-the-radar, and he actually did not play steadily since the 2007-08 season when he was at Purdue until this year. He can't beat you alone, but is a great addition as a fourth or fifth scoring option.
|Sat. Feb. 19
1 p.m. EST
WVU 16-9, 7-6
ND 21-4, 10-3
WVU - 23
ND - 10
As much experience and ability as Brey's starters have, the Notre Dame bench only goes about two to three deep, partially because of injuries. The coaching staff uses a pair of guards in freshman Eric Atkins (6-2, 173 lbs.) and sophomore Joey Brooks (6-6, 215 lbs.). Brooks, who averages less than two points and two rebounds, has played in 21 of 25 games for about nine minutes per contest. His shot has been off the entire season, as he makes less than 50 percent from the line and 10 percent from three. Brey is likely to utilize Brooks as a minutes stealer against the Mountaineers and not much else.
Atkins, the sixth man, plays 27 minutes and averages six points and four assists. Listed as the only "true" point guard on the roster, Atkins handles the ball well and can distribute. He will be a major player for Notre Dame over the next few years, but does force threes at times right now. He will try to drive it, and he is decent from the line. Forward Jack Cooley (6-9, 244 lbs.) plays 10 minutes and hits for four points and three rebounds. He is selective with hi shot, and as a result has made 68 percent from the field. He plays physically, and is among the better screen setters in the conference. Cooley plays behind Nash, and gives the Irish another good rebounder.
The Irish are shooting and distributing the ball extremely well, and have experience matched only by St. John's across the Big East. Five senior starters, a solid bench and a brand of unselfish basketball rarely seen has pushed Notre Dame into the hunt for the league championship with 21 wins in the first 25 games. What the Irish don't have is an incredibly gifted interior player, one who stands 6-10 or taller that could create tremendous match-up issues for the Mountaineers. Thus, with the majority of the roster at about 6-8, WVU should be able to battle on the boards. The Mountaineers simply cannot get beaten in the rebounding game as they did versus Pitt and Syracuse.
West Virginia also needs to shut down the three-point shooting and keep Notre Dame – a 74 percent foul shooting team – off the line. By staying out of foul trouble (John Flowers, especially), being even or better on the boards and limiting the Irish's outside shot, the Mountaineers should have a chance to win a marquee game at home. This is a big one. Get this and the slate lays out nicely with a trip to Rutgers and a decent chance for a split in the final two home games. Lose, and West Virginia could find itself slipping onto the NCAA bubble.
WVU: F Kevin Noreen (Knee), Out for Season.
Notre Dame: F Mike Broghammer (Knee), Questionable; F Carleton Scott (Hamstring), Probable; G Jerian Grant (Shin), Out for Season.
WVU has welcomed more than 75 former players, coaches and staff to Morgantown for a basketball reunion this weekend.
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West Virginia has won 19 of its last 24 games televised by CBS. The Mountaineers have won seven straight regular season games televised by CBS, and eight of its last nine. Many of those games were NCAA Tournament broadcasts.
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WVU is 45-8 in the Coliseum under Huggins. The program is trying for its 455th all-time Coliseum win.
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The Mountaineers, under Huggins, are holding foes to less than 60 points at home. They have played the fewest home games of any Big East team this season with 11.
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West Virginia has won three of the last four series games. Notre Dame has won 14 of the last 18. The two programs met last season in the Big East Tournament semifinals, with WVU winning 53-51.
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Notre Dame has not won in the Coliseum in six years. It is 8-6 all-time in the Coliseum.
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Huggins is 3-3 versus Notre Dame as a head coach. Mike Brey is 2-3 against Huggins and 12-4 against the Mountaineers. Huggins is 1-1 against ND as a player. Thirty-four years ago, Huggins scored 14 points to lead West Virginia over No. 17 Notre Dame 81-68.