SCOUTING THE BULLS
In past seasons, USF featured a star or two that could put the team on his back and get a few wins. This year, the Bulls have a balanced team that, somewhat incredibly, has no player averaging in double figures in points. Some of that is due to USF's pace, which approaches that of Notre Dame on offense and emphasizes tough defense, which in turn extends the shot clock on the other end of the floor. However, it also emphasizes the fact that USF isn't the one- or two-man teams of the past, and that it can depend on a number of different players to score, rebound and defend.
The most notable name on the Bulls' roster is Gus Gilchrist, who has been the most consistent presence in the starting lineup. Gilchrist averages 9.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, and has become a better all-around player during his senior year. He's making nearly 70% of his free throws, and has 31 blocks to tie for the team lead. Fellow frontcourt starter Ron Anderson is a solid complimentary player, scoring 7.5 points and snaring 5.7 rebounds per outing. He's a foul target, however, as he is a 49.5% shooter from the line, which can server to keep him out of late game offensive possessions.
Third forward Victor Rudd is right in the same range in terms of productivity (8.5 ppg/4.5 rpg), and can step out to hit the occasional three-pointer as well. Backup Toarlyn Fitzpatrick completes the frontcourt off the bench, averaging 8.4 points and a team best 6.7 rebounds per game in nearly 26 minutes of action per contest.
Backup guard Jawanza Poland is the team's leading backcourt scorer, tallying 9.1 points per game. He's not a high percentage shooter, but has a knack for manufacturing points that keeps the Bulls on the winning side of the ledger. Starter Anthony Collins is the playmaker, as he leads the team with 134 assists, but he, like everyone else in the USF rotation, is a scoring threat, tallying 7.8 points per outing. Hugh Robertson, his starting mate at guard, averages 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per outing. Blake Nash and Shaun Noriega eat up most of the remaining bench minutes. Both are excellent free throw shooters, with Noriega being a particular long distance threat.
A look at USF's stat sheet reveals the profile of a team that is about .500, not 19-11 and 12-5 in the league. The Bulls have 46 more turnovers than assists, and average just 60 points per game. However, tough defense (foes are shooting just 39% from the field) and a +3.6 rebounding margin have paved the way to a successful season, and can't be ignored when evaluating one of the surprise teams of the Big East.
Splattered across the front page of USF's offical athletics site is the banner headline -- "Biggest Home Game in 20 Years". While that's not necessarily a note of respect to West Virginia, it is an indication of how the game is being viewed by the USF program. How will the Mountaineers respond?
WVU 18-12, 8-9
USF 19-11, 12-5
WVU - 47
USF - 32
USF will throw its glacial offense, sticky defense and what it hopes to be a jacked-up crowd at the Mountaineers. Can WVU be expected to handle all of that? Those looking at the DePaul game as a potential turning point probably shouldn't put too much emphasis on it -- the Blue Demons played about as hard as teams in the NFL Pro Bowl in the loss. Granted, West Virginia needed the win, but it can't be viewed as any sort of turning point in WVU's season - the Mountaineers likely didn't start practicing twice as hard or getting in extra work across the board prior to that game. At this point in the season, dramatic shifts in play can't be expected -- and this is a game that the Mountaineers can't out-talent their opponent in.
In order to win this game, WVU has to defend for the entire shot clock. It can't guard for 25 seconds and then let up, or permit late straight-line drives to the hoop. It has to be workmanlike across the board, and not leave Bulls unaccounted for as the shot clock winds down. While USF isn't likely to light WVU up with three-point shots, it does have several players that can knock them down, including Poland, Rudd, Fitzpatrick, Nash and Noriega. And in a game in which every point is valuable, a handful of threes could be the difference between a win and a loss.
From a motivational standpoint, things should be even. Both schools are somewhere on or near the bubble for an NCAA bid, and a win over the other could well sew up a spot in the Big Dance, no matter what happens in next week's Big East tournament. Which team realizes that? Is West Virginia ready for the onslaught of emotion it will face, including USF's Senior Day festivities? It's another challenge that many of the underclassmen on the Mountaineer squad have never experienced, and their response to it will likely determine the outcome of the game.
WVU, of course, will try to speed up the tempo and run when it can. The key to that will be getting the ball off the defensive boards and out to the guards quickly, but often in road environments there's a tendency to not push the ball as much, and to stop and set up the offense rather than attacking. That's certainly an item to watch in this game, as just a few transition points could help swing things in West Virginia's favor.
While Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant obviously have a great impact on West Virginia's success, Deniz Kilicli can't be ignored as an important factor. The junior center has scored just 22 points in WVU's last three games, and while he has been more consistent this year, he can't disappear down the stretch. He doesn't necessarily need to record double-doubles, but he has to provide rebounding support and defensive help if WVU is to have any postseason success.
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Much has been made of USF beating up teams without a winning Big East record, but there's a good deal to be said for "beating who you are supposed to" as well. USF is one of just four teams nationally - joining No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Syracuse and No. 7 North Carolina - that has not lost to an unranked team since Dec. 28.
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With his next double-double, Kevin Jones will move into a tie for sixth in the single season record book. Carey Bailey, with 20 such games in 1968, is currently one spot ahead of Jones. Lloyd Sharrar, with 23 double-doubles in 1957, could be within reach, provided the Mountaineers aren't one-and-done in both Big East and tournament play. Jerry West (who else) holds the top two spots with 30 and 25 in 1960 and 1959, respectively.
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The injury scenario for both teams has mirrored their relative success. WVU, with a reasonably healthy roster early, started out very well, but the season-ending injuries to Pat Forsythe and Kevin Noreen have severely limited WVU's inside options. As head coach Bob Hugggins frequently notes, "That's nearly 14 feet of humanity sitting on the bench."
Conversely, USF fought through injuries and ineligibility early, which kept Gilchrist, Poland and Collins off the floor for a number of November and December games. Since returning to full roster availability, however, the Bulls are 12-4.