NCAA Tournament Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers - Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Conventional wisdom holds, and we agree, that so much of the NCAA Tournament is about match-ups. Accept that, and West Virginia's first-round contest with Stephen F. Austin is intriguing indeed.


Swingman Thomas Walkup (Sr., 6-4, 195 lbs.), the two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year, is also the only performer in the history of the league to win three consecutive tournament MVP honors. He fills up the stat line, averaging 17.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, while also dealing out nearly three assists for every turnover. He made almost 60% of his shots this season, and contributed more than two steals per game to SFA's total. About the only thing he doesn't do well is shoot threes, but that's the smallest of dings in an otherwise outstanding resume. Point guard Trey Pinkney (Sr., 5-9, 160 lbs.) is a pest on defense, disrupting foes on the perimeter while handling playmaking duties on offense. He has turned the ball over just 28 times in 32 games this season, but is not a big scoring threat, as he averages only 2.7 points per outing.

Demetrious Floyd (Sr., 5-11, 170 lbs.) rounds out the senior trio in the starting lineup, and provides 13.8 points per game of scoring support while hitting 42.4% of this threes. Sophomore Ty Charles (6-5, 190) has added size to the backcourt, and taken advantage while producing 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds in 31 games this season. He slashes to the offensive boards well, and has gathered more than a third of his rebounds on that end of the floor. Freshman TJ Holyfield (6-8, 210 lbs.) has been an excellent first year performer while benefiting from the presence of all the experience around him. Working cleanup duties around the hoop, he has produced 7.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, but can also hit a three if left undefended. He's the only true shotblocker on the team, with 46 rejections on the season.

The Lumberjacks do a number of different things well offensively, but many of their tactics lead to getting cutters free for close in shots or creating space for ballhandlers to work a two man game with a wing or a high post player. Fall asleep, fail to communicate or make the correct read on a switch, and they are likely to get to the hoop for an open shot. West Virginia will face a big challenge in Pinkney. Can the Mountaineers deny him the ball, or trap him when they don't? If Pinkney can defeat early traps and move the ball upcourt quickly, he could help neutralize the Mountaineers' side of the pressure game.


We've been through the comparisons and contrasting of both team's pressure games, so now it's time to look at a couple of specifics that figure to have a big impact.

WVU (26-8 / 13-5) vs. SFA 27-5 / 20-0 Fri Mar 18 7:10 PM EST
Barclays Center Brooklyn, NY Series: 1st Meeting
RPI: WVU - 12 SFA - 69 TV: CBS Sirius/XM: 83/202

First, as mentioned in our interview with Devin Williams, SFA likes to front the post. That's part of their all-out ball denial scheme – they will attempt to offset their lack of height and size by not letting Williams, Elijah Macon, et al, get the ball on the blocks or in the lane. WVU will counter in a couple of different ways. First, they'll run a high-low post, screen and exchange, and even occasionally put Jaysean Paige in as part of that two-man game. If a front gets established, the two will simply screen for each other and exchange, forcing Lumberjack defenders to give up their spots in the post. They could also attempt to isolate the post and throw the ball over the front, but that would seem to be a secondary tactic at this point. Either way, WVU can't simply stand and be static – it must be active inside and move to get the position their post men want.

When West Virginia does get the ball inside, expect SFA to immediately double team. That will put passing onus on Mountaineers bigs – they can't rush, but they must quickly identify the teammate that is left open and get the ball to him. That's not easy, as Macon explained – even though the defenders aren't as tall, they move quickly and make it difficult to find passing lanes. That, as much as anything, could be the key for the game. If WVU passes it well, it should be able to get the win. Anything north of 15 turnovers, and SFA has a chance.

On the opposite end, WVU must disrupt the cuts of SFA's nicely designed offense. Whether it's a guard or wing cutting off the high post, or the point giving the ball up and diving through the lane or around and extended screen for a backdoor look, the Lumberjacks get a lot of open shots close to the basket – more, in fact, than their size would suggest. (Witness their 48.5% success rate on field goal attempts.) Before this year's renewed emphasis on freedom of movement, this would be a straightforward task for a Bob Huggins defense. Just get in the way, force cutters wide, and eliminate the direct paths that the offensive players hope to take. This can still be done in this year's game, but it has to be more subtle. Defenders are allowed to have a position, but they can't use armbars to block the way or body up with force. WVU's ability to do this without getting into foul trouble will go a long way in determining SFA's offensive success.


There have been 20 instances of a 14 seed beating a three seed in the NCAA tournament. None have involved West Virginia, but two occurred last year, including UAB over Iowa State.

WVU is 2-4 in NCAA play in New York City, with all of those games coming in the Fred Schaus era The Mountaineers lost to LaSalle in 1955, Dartmouth in 1956, Canisius in 1957 and Manhattan in 1958, but then downed Dartmouth in 1959 and Navy in 1960.

SFA's forced turnover number (the best in the nation) has received a ton of attention, but the Lumberjacks can pass the ball too. They are averaging 18.9 assists per game this year, which is second best nationally. They lead the country in this stat a year ago.

West Virginia has done very well in its recent games televised by CBS. The Mountaineers snared the prime time spot on Friday night, and hope to extend a streak that has seen them win 10 of their last 15 and 21 of their most recent 30 games on the Big Eye network.

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