Basketball Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers - Florida Gators

Just a couple of days ago, the sun couldn't have been much brighter for the Mountaineer basketball program. Now, with the announcement of the suspension of Jonathan Holton, a cloud of gloom pervades as West Virginia travels to Florida to face the Gators in the Big 12\SEC Challenge.


In a number of ways, the Gators are reflections of WVU. Florida doesn't shoot it well, but makes up for it by playing excellent defense and rebounding the ball at a high rate to fuel extra scoring chances. They will also press, although not to the extent that the Mountaineers do, and win games by stifling foes on the defensive end.

The Gators have used ten different players in starting roles this year, but the one constant has been forward Dorian Finney-Smith (Sr., 6-8 220 lbs.), who leads the team with a 14.4 points per game average. He's also on the court far more than anyone else, and as a result is also first in shot attempts of all types. He's UF's best volume 3-point shooter, and is a threat to score off the bounce, via offensive rebound and at the end of a sequence as a spot up shooter. Sophomore center John Egbunu (6-10, lbs.) has struggled to stay on the floor of late, but when he does he's a very good complement to Finney-Smith, averaging 10.6 points and 6.6 boards per outing.

In the backcourt, freshman KeVaughn Allen (6-2, 185 lbs.) has rounded into form very well in his initial year in Gainesville, scoring 11.6 points per contest in a scorer's role. Point guard Chris Chiozza (So., 6-0, 175 lbs.) has recorded 89 assists despite UF's poor shooting, and holds a sterling 3.4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to go along with nearly seven points per outing.

As mentioned above, UF can go deep down its bench. Even with the potential absence of junior forward Justin Leon 6-8, 195 lbs.), who suffered a head injury against Vanderbilt and might be held out, head coach Mike White has plenty of options to deploy. Sophomore forward Devin Robinson (6-8, 1965 lbs.) is a line filler with 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and Kasey Hill Jr., G, 6-1, 180 lbs.) pitches in with 8.5 points each time out. Kevarrius Hayes (Fr., F, 6-9, 210 lbs.) is third on the team in blocks despite playing just 11.5 minutes per outing, highlighting ways in which the UF subs help support the overall effort.


Two opposing outlooks collide in assessing this game. The trouble is, both are equally valid, and either could be the deciding factor in this featured Big 12 – SEC Challenge match-up.

WVU (17-3 / 6-2) vs. Florida 13-7 / 5-3) Sat Jan 30 12:00 PM EST
O'Connell Center Gainesville, FL Series: UF 4-3
RPI: WVU - 16 UF - 26 TV: ESPN Sirius/XM: 84/84

On the optimistic side, it's the “next man up approach”. That's certainly realistic, and it's the view that the coaching staff will hold, both publicly and in interactions with the team. West Virginia has won games this year with Jonathan Holton playing poorly or confined to the bench with fouls, so there's no reason it can't win this game without him. They've done the same with Jevon Carter or Devin Williams providing little in a game or two, so the precedent is there.

On the other hand, there's no one that can provide the sort of across-the-board contributions that Holton has. From offensive rebounding to defense to scoring, he's been a line filler on the stat sheet and one of the emotional stalwarts of the team. The Mountaineers will feel his loss, and will have to fill the gaps with either adroit shuffling of players or different lineups. None of those options, though, feature just one player who can do everything that Holton does at such a high level.

So, which one manifests itself in this game? Florida could be without one of its players as well, although he doesn't appear to be as vital as Holton is to WVU. The key is for West Virginia to not get frustrated when it doesn't get as many offensive rebounds as normal, or cause quite as much havoc with its press. The Mountaineers must control the ball better and not suffer its own avalanche of turnovers. If it does so in this game, it's going to lose that stat battle – and probably the contest.


The Gators figure to give the Mountaineers more trouble than any team they have faced in the lane. With a number of tall, rangy frontcourters, UF will challenge WVU inside. The West Virginia frontcourt doesn't elevate well on shots for the most part, and its guards still drive into the paint too frequently without an opening to get a shot away. Keep track of WVU's attempts and makes inside against a set Gator defense - that's an area where the Mountaineers must convert in order to win.

Florida forward DeVon Walker has not made a field goal in his past 13 games, despite averaging 12.6 minutes per contest and starting four games this year. He is oh for his last 17 in that span.

Free throw shooting will again be a focal point, but with a different twist. While WVU remains mired near the bottom of the national rankings in fouls committed per game (24.1, ranking 346th out of 351 Division I teams), Florida isn't well-positioned to take advantage, as the Gators make just 62.3% of their tries. West Virginia, which has gotten off to horrible starts at the line in each of its last two home games, must do better on its own efforts at the line in order to make up ground in an expected defensive battle that could come down to the final possession.

There is no equating the potential loss of Florida's Justin Leon to that of Jonathan Holton for WVU. Leon provides good minutes with a couple of hoops and rebounds per game, but his contributions don't begin to compare to those of Holton.

Former Mountaineer and current Florida assistant Darris Nichols just missed a pair of milestone statistical achievements at WVU during his four seasons (2004-08) as a point guard for both John Beilein and Huggins. He had 399 assists and scored 993 points for West Virginia. However, he does still hold the NCAA record for most games played without fouling out at 141. That's magic that current Mountaineers might try to grab.

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