UPDATING THE SCARLET KNIGHTS
Since dropping an 85-64 decision to the Mountaineers on their home floor on Jan 4, the Scarlet Knights have added two impressive wins to their resume, which already included a victory over Florida. Rutgers reeled off back-to-back wins over Connecticut and Pitt while playing outstanding defense, and even though the Panthers are a shocking 0-5 in the league, both wins were good ones for a team fighting to establish itself. RU allowed just 60 points to the Huskies and an all-time low of 39 to the floundering Panthers. Those victories evened its league record at 2-2 and has revived talk of an NCAA bid, although that's still a long way off.
Rutgers could take another step in that direction with a road win over WVU -- a victory that would take some of the sting out of the beatdown the Mountaineers administered at the RAC. In that contest, the Scarlet Knights were buried under an early avalanche of WVU scoring and trailed 42-19 at one point.
RU continues to feature the inside\outside duo of guard Eli Carter (14.2 ppg) and Gilvydas Biruta (10.4 ppg). In its back-to-back league wins, Rutgers has gotten significant contributions from backups such as Mike Poole and Myles Mack, and has gone nine and ten players deep on its bench. Head coach Mike Rice noted that his squad has learned from its league setbacks, and now understands how hard it has to play in order to be competitive in the league. With players accepting their roles more readily, Rutgers appears to be primed for a run at the postseason.
Rutgers crushed Pitt on the boards in its most recent win, but its two-game winning streak has been built mostly on defense.
WVU 12-5, 3-2
RU 10-7 2-2
WVU - 13
RU - 149
If Rutgers has truly bought in to that teaching, the stage could be set for a defensive war at the Coliseum, where WVU head coach Bob Huggins also preaches stopping the offense as a key to victory. Which team will be able to run its offense in the face of defensive pressure? Will the Mountaineers revert to bad habits (dribbling in place, holding the ball) that have ruined its attack at times this year?
Rice told ESPN that the key for the Scarlet Knights is to stand up for themselves.
"We just can't get bullied," Rice told Andy Katz. "There were literally six three-point plays. They had points off turnovers. We took quick shots and they ran it down our throats. We showed a lack of poise and purpose. We better take care of the ball and not get bullied."
So, perhaps the best item to watch -- which team establishes dominance, on the boards or elsewhere? Rebounding and second chance points will be key, especially if both teams are missing shots due to good defense. So too will the ability to bang in the lane without drawing attention from officials. WVU's Deniz Kilicli has been a magnet for calls this year, and must figure out how to get position and unleash his offensive moves without getting foul calls. Huggins maintains that defenders are kneeing and shoving his center with impunity, and hopes to get things called more evenly in the post.
Rutgers is trying to win its third consecutive Big East game -- a feat it has not accomplished since the 2003-04 season. Coincidentally, that is the last year the Scarlet Knights defeated WVU - the victory came in an NIT game at Rutgers. The Mountaineers have won seven games in a row in the series.
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Huggins has continually pointed to West Virginia's lack of passing as a failure this year, and that's illustrated in the team's assist totals. While WV is #60 (out of 345 teams) in total assists, it is averaging just 10.6 in its five losses this year. On the other side of the ledger, the Mountaineers have dished out nearly 17 assists per game in their 12 wins.
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West Virginia, is young, but Rutgers is younger, at least in terms of minutes played by class. The Scarlet Knights are fourth in the nation when ranking the average of class year per minutes played. St. John's has the youngest team playing in terms of minutes played by class ranking, while UConn is sixth.
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WVU is holding its second annual men's basketball reunion this weekend, and expects close to 100 players for the celebration. The event, coordinated by the WVU Varsity Club and director Dale Wolfley, will include several events for the alums, including a reception and pre- and post-game meals and mixers.