SCOUTING THE THUNDERING HERD
The two teams have revamped their styles considerably since last season's 69-59 WVU win. The Mountaineers have become perimeter-oriented, relying upon made shots to offset height and, at times, rebounding issues. Marshall, conversely, has become more interior-based with the majority of its line-up struggling from three-point range. Head coach Tom Herrion saw almost his entire starting line-up turn over in the offseason, as four starters departed for various reasons, leaving forward Elijah Pittman (6-9, 220 lbs.) as the lone returning starter. The senior, however, has been indefinitely suspended, Marshall announced on Monday, leaving Herrion without his top scorer and one of just two rotational Herd players shooting better than 28 percent from three-point range.
The loss negates some height and athleticism on a team already struggling – much like West Virginia – to finish games. The Herd is on a three-game skid with losses to East Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Penn State, and its two other defeats this season have come in overtime.
Herrion will now look to freshman guard Kareem Canty (6-1, 185 lbs.), already carrying a significant scoring load at 18.3 points per game, for a bit more production. The Brooklyn native is shooting a team-best 40 percent from three-point range, and likely will need to knock down a few to spread the Mountaineers' man-to-man look and give forwards Ryan Taylor (6-5, 225 lbs.) and TyQuane Goard (6-7, 215 lbs.) better chances. Canty also averages 6.7 assists per game, and should, as he gains experience, have a much better assist-to-turnover ratio that his current numbers, just fewer than two-to-one.
Taylor, a redshirt freshman, is hitting for 11.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, and has arguably the best upside of any of MU's younger frontcourt players. Taylor works the glass and uses his length well to challenge shots, but doesn't have the best hands and will commit turnovers. Goard, a sophomore, won't operate much outside the 10-foot range, yet hasn't gotten to the line as much as one would expect, shooting just 24 free throws this season. Fellow forward Cheikh Sane (6-9, 225 lbs.) gives the staff some needed height, thought the junior hasn't been as active as expected, playing just 15 minutes per game while averaging just three points and five rebounds.
Guard Chris Thomas (6-5, 188 lbs.), 11.4 points and four rebounds, will be imperative at both ends for the Herd, who need his height to try and take away cleaner looks for West Virginia's guards. The sophomore has had his own struggles from three, hitting just four of 20. With Pittman out, Thomas will have to take on more of a scoring role and, like Canty, help the Herd open some driving and passing lanes via converting from the outside. Herrion will also use Shawn Smith (6-6, 228 lbs.), Tamron Manning (6-4, 210 lbs.) and Devince Boykins (6-4, 210 lbs.), the latter of which has started four games. Smith and Manning are bigger threats, however, averaging 7.3 and 4.7 points.
Marshall, while trying to get the ball inside on offense and extend their defense, has seemed to have too much youthful inexperience to overcome. Herrion is using a rotation made primarily of freshmen and sophomores, and he'll be without his best senior in Pittman.
7:30 PM E
Charleston, W. Va.
Capital Classic Network
WVU - 79
MU - 230
To be clear, West Virginia should win this game. It has better talent, experience and ability in nearly all phases. But this game is often close, and, for some reason, WVU often struggles shooting in Charleston. The Mountaineers must showcase better ball movement and eliminate the stagnant offensive issues that plagued it down the stretch against Gonzaga. West Virginia must also find a way through the various MU zones and, has Huggins notes, live or die by the jumpshot.
This is a game badly needed by both programs as a boost and a builder. Both teams are playing through issues, though of now Marshall seems to have far more. West Virginia must take advantage of the youth and, frankly, the likelihood that many of the MU freshman won't understand the intensity of the game early on – just as Eron Harris and Terry Henderson did not last season for the Mountaineers. The tangibles all point to West Virginia. But, in this game, it's the intangibles that often play a far larger part than most other contests.
In a statistical nod to the traditional close margin of the Classic, 11 of the last 15 meetings have been decided by single digits, with a pair of overtime games. The schools split those overtime games. WVU has won 13 of the last 17 series games.
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Depth could have a major impact on the game – and neither team has it. West Virginia and Marshall have combined for 286 fouls and shot 325 free throws in the last six series games. That's an average of 47.7 fouls and 54.2 free throws per game. The "rivals" are often chippy with each other, fueled by the atmosphere inside the Civic Center. But both teams also play with a bit more finesse than power, and that should lessen the calls – as will the close whistles early from the rule changes that will likely settle play.
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Huggins seems to be stuck on 16th place on the career wins mark, tied with Norm Stewart and Jerry Tarkanian. Stewart's own Missouri program stopped Huggins from taking sole possession of the spot in the recent head-to-head meeting, and then Gonzaga denied the placement boost as well. The Shark, never one to throw in the towel as much as chew on it, is still holding on at 729 wins.
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West Virginia has hit at least 10 threes in six of its first 10 games. That already surpasses last season's mark of just five games with 10-plus threes. Keep an eye on that mark versus Marshall. A dozen threes, ad West Virginia should be well on its way to victory. How much will the size of Thomas or Taylor bother Harris? And will West Virginia continue to swing the ball and screen – as Harris contends the team did not in the second half against Gonzaga – for their best shooter?
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Another stat to watch: Juwan Staten has had one or zero turnovers in 13 of his last 17 games dating to last year. The junior point guard leads the Big 12 in assist per game at 6.8 and assist-to-turnovers at 4.86. Staten will be key in breaking any MU pressure, and should be able to take advantage of the younger Herd guards and get West Virginia into proper position to attack the zones.