UPDATING THE CARDINALS
Louisville has won seven of 10 since beating West Virginia 55-54 on Jan. 26, including its last four in a run that includes Connecticut and Pittsburgh. What's most impressive about the run is that the Cards are doing it in a variety of ways: outrebounding or outshooting foes, playing slow, methodical, defensive games and racking up 87 points in one contest. What hasn't changed is head coach Rick Pitino's reliance on guards Preston Knowles (6-1, 195 lbs.) and Peyton Siva (5-11, 175 lbs.).
UofL doesn't have much depth in the backcourt, so the pair is seeing increased time. Siva, who made the driving lay-up to knock off the Mountaineers, is averaging 10 points and three rebounds. The sophomore hasn't shot well from outside (28.4 percent), and really hasn't been very effective from the line. He can put pressure on the rim, though, and he hurt WVU with five of five shooting earlier this year. He isn't an incredibly difficult guard, but is a clutch shooter that must be watched in key situations.
Knowles, a senior, leads the team in points per game at 14.5. He has better accuracy from all over the floor than does Siva, and converts from the line. This is an active player who can make plays at both ends with his quickness and athleticism. Knowles had a tough game versus West Virginia, missing 13 of 16 shots, nine of which were threes. The Coliseum is a known shot killer, but one should expect him to play a bit better this time.
On the inside, center George Goode (6-8, 230 lbs.) averages the fewest points of any starter with three a game. Goode has only played about eight minutes a game because of the exceptional frontcourt depth. The junior rebounds decently, but isn't going to beat West Virginia on his own. This is, surprisingly a minutes-stealer who starts.
Forwards Kyle Kuric (6-4, 185 lbs.) and Mike Marra (6-5, 200 lbs.) are undersized, but that doesn't hurt UofL much because of the size they have off the bench. Kuric averages 10 points and almost four rebounds and is one of the top two shooters on the team. He can score from anywhere (51 percent from the floor/43.8 percent from three) and will execute if he gets to the line. This isn't a player who draws many fouls, and he doesn't like to drive – but any open looks are trouble. Marra hits for 6.4 points and 2.2 rebounds, but unlike Kuric has struggled shooting. Marra, a solid passer, is at his best from close range. The benefit to West Virginia is that the size issue creates very good shooting chances for the Mountaineers; if WVU can hit like it did versus Connecticut, it has a very good chance at a win in the finale.
|Sat. March 5
WVU 19-10, 10-7
UofL 23-7, 12-5
WVU - 16
UofL - 20
Pitino tries to play at least eight and as many as 10 players, and the Cards went 11 deep against West Virginia in the first meeting this season. The bench, especially with guard Russ Smith likely out with a concussion (Smith played nine minutes vs. WVU) is a bit light on backcourt numbers with Chris Smith (6-2, 200 lbs.) the lone viable body. The junior, a walk-on transfer, has emerged to play about 25 minutes per game this season. Smith averages nine points and 4.5 rebounds, and can play either of the guard slots. He passes well, has decent floor vision and is shooting well from three-point range at 41 percent (32 of 78). Smith also gets to the line adequately, and his defense is solid – but not spectacular. This is a quality all-around player who Pitino badly needs to remain healthy and productive going into the postseason.
The big interior threat, literally and figuratively, is Terrence Jennings (6-10, 230 lbs.). The junior forward has excellent size and a good wingspan and nets nine points with five boards a game. Much like what John Flowers once was, Jennings gives the Cards a boost off the bench, bringing athleticism and good physical tools. Jennings can block shots (leads the team with 55), and he is by far the best all-around rebounder on the team. Jennings is adept at put-back points, and WVU must put a body on him and continue trying to move him away from the bucket. He makes more than 50 percent from the field, and he will force contact inside and get to the line (62.8 percent). He managed just five points in the first series game, but it's difficult to imagine he won't top that this time.
The other couple frontcourt reserves give the Cardinal staff even more size with Stephen Van Treese (6-9, 235 lbs.) and Gorgui Dieng (6-10, 225 lbs.). Van Treese, a sophomore, plays 15 minutes and averages three points and four rebounds. He won't shoot outside, and isn't exceptionally physical. He also won't take bad shots or chances with the ball. Dieng, a freshman, is much more active. A very good rebounder, Dieng averages 4.6 boards to go with six points. He has good range because of his arm length and will block and alter shots. WVU, if it can afford to do so with its numbers, can put him at the line; Dieng makes just 58 percent from the stripe.
Not much changes in a series match-up, and Huggins has been over this ad nauseam: stop transition and easy points, rebound the ball, slow penetration and shut down the three-pointer. The first is a key, and something West Virginia did well enough to win in the first game, but arguably not as well as the coaching staff would have liked. The Mountaineers executed the game plan well in a one-point loss at Louisville, but simply didn't make enough shots from three-point range or the foul line to escape with a win. As is often noted, WVU is a heck of a lot better when it makes shots. So is UofL.
This one, like most when the talent gap is negligible, comes down to execution. On what should be an emotional Senior Day, let's hope West Virginia can focus effectively and pick up a win, not only to continue boosting seeding, but to give Mazzulla, Thoroughman, Flowers and others the send-off desired.
WVU: F Kevin Noreen (Knee), Out for Season.
UofL: F Rakeem Buckles (Knee), Out for Season; F Jared Swopshire (Groin), Out for Season; G Russ Smith (Concussion), Doubtful.
This will be the final home game for WVU seniors John Flowers, Joe Mazzulla, Casey Mitchell, Kerwin Selby, Cam Thoroughman and Jonnie West. Head manager Kurt Covion and student athletic trainer Drew Moore will also be recognized. The Mountaineer seniors have played in a combined 528 games. Mazzulla has been a parrt of 103 WVU wins, second in program history to Da'Sean Butler's 107.
* * *
The next win will be Bob Huggins' 100th at West Virginia. He has coached less than four whole seasons. It would be the fastest coach to 100 wins in school history.
* * *
Truck Bryant needs 23 points to reach 1,000 for his career. John Flowers is still fifth in school history in blocks. He is second in the Big East this season.
* * *
West Virginia will finish with 14 home games, the fewest of any Big East team. The Mountaineers are one of two programs to have a winning league record each of the last six seasons (Pitt).
* * *
West Virginia has won 42 of its last 45 games when holding foes to less than 70 points. Louisville was one of the three losses, that game coming earlier this season when the Cards won 55-54.
* * *
Huggins is 15-15 versus Louisville. Rick Pitino is 7-2 against West Virginia. The Cardinals have won four straight games. UofL is 4-5 in road games and 3-5 in Big East road games.