SCOUTING THE WARHAWKS
The University of Louisiana at Monroe (yes, that's what the school wants to be called) will be winding up an ill-conceived road trip that sees it playing three games in a four-day span. @ULM (that's the other preferred usage) lost at Kent State on Thursday, Penn State on Friday, then received a one-day respite before facing the Mountaineers on Sunday. The first two games were part of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic, as opposed to the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational that WVU played in. (Aside: Continental Tire is getting some good mileage out of these sponsorships.) Two-game road swings for mid-major schools are par for the course in these sorts of events, but back-to-back game nights, compounded by a third against a Top 15 foe, is a lot to ask of any school.
Making things even harder for ULM (4-4) is the absence of its best player, Majok Deng. The slender forward (6-10, 190 lbs.) was averaging 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds through the team's first six games before a lower leg injury sidelined him, and he's not expected back anytime soon. Without Deng's contributions, the Warhawks dropped consecutive decisions to Kent State and Penn State after getting off to a 4-2 start. Left to carry the load is a pair of guards at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Senior Nick Coppola (5-11, 195 lbs.) contributes across the board, with 9.7 points and a team-best four assists per game, while freshman Travis Munnings (6-6, 195 lbs.) adds 10.7 points and 6.8 boards per outing.
Fellow starters Justin Roberson (Sr., 6-1, 190 lbs.) and Jamaal Samuel (Sr., 6-9, 195 lbs.) also contribute nicely in ULM's balanced effort. They combine for nearly 17 points per game, although both are well under the 40% shooting mark from the field. Off the bench, DeMondre Harvey (Sr., 67, 210 lbs.) adds some instant offense with seven points per game – he's an efficient player who doesn't jack up shots the second he hits the floor. He's actually the Warhawks' most effective shooter at 62% per outing, and his contributions will be even more critical while Deng is out.
ULM has been good defensively, albeit against lesser competition, as it yields just 38% opponent shooting from the field to go along with a 26% mark from 3-point range. That has helped it hold foes to fewer than 75 points in 51 of its last 52 games.
ULM has experience, which is certainly a factor in the strong defensive efforts it has posted so far this season. It hasn’t faced a team with the overall strength of West Virginia though, so the first match-up to watch in this game is one of a physical nature. Can the Warhawks stand up to WVU’s work on the boards and in the press? Of course, the new emphasis on calling fouls eliminates some of this advantage for the Mountaineers, but there’s still enough contact and physical play in positioning to make this an important factor. Only one Warhawk with appreciable playing time tops the 200-pound mark, and while that’s not a prerequisite for good play, it is an edge that WVU (7-1) should be able to take advantage of.
Countering that, however, is the fact that ULM has gathered 108 offensive rebounds this year, and crushed Penn State by 16 on the boards. ULM grabbed 18 offensive rebounds in that game, so while it isn’t shoving people out of the way to get the ball, it is finding paths to do so.
|WVU (7-1) vs. ULM (4-4)||Sun Dec 13||WVU Coliseum||Morgantown, WV|
|RPI: WVU - 59 ULM - 134||5:00 PM||TV: ROOT Sports||Series: WVU 1-0|
Following on the heels of that is the aforementioned schedule, which sees ULM playing three games in four days. Seven Warhawks accounted for all but 12 minutes of action against Kent State on Thursday, and racked up 196 of the 200 possible minutes against Penn State. That will have to be an issue as they take the court against the Mountaineers, even though the game was moved back a few hours to help them have as much recovery time as possible. ULM didn’t have time to do much prep work for this game, and it’s likely to show as it tries to battle an entirely different game scheme than what it has faced recently. The game pace against Penn State was slow, to be sure, but the cumulative effects of the road trip are almost sure to show.
West Virginia’s use of Brandon Watkins will also be an item to keep tabs on. After a nice debut against Kennesaw State, in which he scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in 17 minutes, he saw just three minutes against Virginia, where he failed to dent the stat line. Whether that was due to the match-up against UVA’s defense, errors while on the court or something else, it was puzzler, especially given the fact that WVU’s other bigs also struggled. Watkins is by far West Virginia’s best shot-blocker and defender in the lane, and the Mountaineers are going to need him as the Big 12 season unfolds. Now is the time for him to build endurance and get to the point where he can provide some quality minutes.
This game might not shape up to be the walkover that some will assume, given the Warhawks’ lack of name recognition. ULM can play good defense, and if WVU settles for launching shots from the perimeter, it could find itself in a spot of trouble. If the messages of abandoning the offense in its previous game have been absorbed, though, this should be a win for the home team.
ULM head coach Keith Richard, who spent three seasons as an assistant coach at Marshall from 1986-89, enjoyed just 14 total wins in his first three seasons in Monroe. He turned that around with a ten-win season two years ago, then rocketed to a 24-win plateau last year, highlighted by a trip to the CBI final series.
With an RPI of 134, ULM is much more respected than some of WVU’s other mid-major early season foes, or the in-state opponent still waiting on the schedule. ULM could keep its RPI in the 100-200 range if it can weather the injury to Deng and continue the strong play it has shown in the Sun Belt Conference over the last year-plus.
ULM backup Wade Martin is a native of Point Pleasant, W. Va. He played a year of postgraduate basketball at Fishburne Prep in Virginia, which recently shuttered its post-high school program. Martin is one of nine players on the Warhawks’ 13-man roster who are either transfers junior college graduates or have post-graduate experience.
West Virginia tops the nation in 3-point shooting percentage defense, while ULM is sixth. WVU, in addition to leading the nation in steals and turnovers forced, also tops Division I in extra scoring chances per game, which balances a team’s offensive rebounds and turnovers against those of its opponents. The Mountaineers are getting nearly 17 extra scoring chances per game this year, and is almost lapping the field. Second place Wichita is at 12.9.