Golden Griffins To Test WVU Defense

West Virginia's defense is allowing an average of less than 40 points per game. The unit will get its stiffest challenge yet in its contest against Canisius College at 4 p.m. Saturday in the WVU Coliseum.

The Golden Griffins, as they were under former coach John Beilein, now the head coach at West Virginia, are solid shooters. Canisius shot 43 percent from the field in a 72-69 in a season-opening home loss to Buffalo. The problem for CC (0-1) is that it allowed the Bulls to hit 51 percent of their shots from the floor, including seven of 15 from three-point range.

That bodes well for WVU's offense, which has height advantages at every spot on the floor. The Mountaineers (2-0) have averaged a decent 32.8 percent from three-point range but have won games by dominating lesser foes inside, using its athletes, like 6-8 forward Joe Alexander and sixth-man Da'Sean Butler, to get dunks or steals and run-out baskets. The test tomorrow will be whether West Virginia – which appears as though it should again control the inside and score – can manipulate the opposing offense with its 1-3-1 zone as effectively as it has in opening wins against overmatched Mount St. Mary's and Slippery Rock.

Canisius is quicker than WVU's first two foes, and forward Corey Herring and Darnell Wilson are both averaging 17 points per game through the first 40 minutes of the season. At 6-5 and 6-6, however, they are the largest CC players starting outside of 6-7 center Ola Matti. In all, WVU's starting five will have 17 inches and 75-plus pounds on the Grifs, who went 9-20 last year, including an 80-68 loss to the Mountaineers.

"It's an advantage, but they might be a lot quicker overall," West Virginia point guard Darris Nichols said. "It can be an advantage on offense, but a disadvantage on defense. They played us well last year, cutting it to seven after we had been ahead by a lot. They have a whole other system now. It'll be our first tough challenge this year."

Canisius, under first-year head coach Tom Parrotta, is more experienced than it was last year, while West Virginia is the opposite. It starts four seniors, and utilizes more penetration than a typical shooting team. The Golden Griffins might drive and kick, or finish to the basket if left unchallenged. If it can move West Virginia in the 1-3-1 and get outside shots to fall to pull the wings more, it could open some lanes driving or for passes from the elbow in off cuts.

"I really like this team," said Beilein, 24-2 at WVU in non-conference home games. "I think (former coach) Mike McDonald did not leave the cupboard bare. They have a ton of minutes in this senior class. We are really going to be into a dogfight. They are very aggressive defensively, and while they have not won a lot, they have been close for a long while. Their quickness is Big East-caliber. Their size is not."

Therein lies the battle, both between the teams and preparation and execution-wise for West Virginia. The Mountaineers, never one to shy from their own style, cannot try to force the ball inside too much. It must run its own sets. But if the Grifs can't handle 7-0 centers Rob Summers and Jamie Smalligan, well, then feed the beasts. On defense, better overall athleticism should help some, but those thinking this will be another romp like the one over Division II Slippery Rock are mistaken.

Canisius has shot 50 percent or better from the floor in five of the last nine games, dating back to last season. It has also shot 50 percent or better in 10 of the last 21 periods of basketball, including a 6-for-7 performance in overtime at Saint Peter's Feb. 24, 2006. CC is, however, just 1-6 in its last seven road games, and the contest against WVU starts a stretch where the Griffs play seven of their next eight contests on the road. So a win over a young, inexperienced team that might not be able to handle the combination of shooting and speed could be the jumpstart needed for much of the line-up's last go-around.

"We have to really work to make sure our defense creates some turnovers for us, or is just so solid that it allows us to stay in games even if the timing in our offense is off a little bit," said Beilein. That could be the case early, when, like in football, the defenses are ahead of any offense, especially one like West Virginia's that requires pinpoint execution.

The Mountaineers have held foes to just 79 points combined in the first two games. They have forced 43 turnovers while committing just 19, with 35 assists as well.

"We have to get up into them a lot more than Slippery Rock, because they could not shoot as well," said Alexander, who has three steals and a block in the first two games. "We are going to have to play them further out and keep a hand up."

Notes: Beilein last coached at Canisius in 1996-97. In five seasons, he took CC to two NITs and one NCAA Tournament while going 82-69. The worries over whether any Golden Griffin staff or players remember or know much about his system is probably a moot point.

"That is something I have been tossing around," Beilein said. "They certainly have played a similar style there for years. How much do they recall and what do they know about it I really do not know. We have to honor that they have played that a bit. But it has changed considerably in the 10 years since."

*After the Canisius game, West Virginia travels to Orlando, Fla. for the Old Spice Classic. It will play three games in four days at Disney's Wild World of Sports Complex, the first at 9:30 p.m. Thanksgiving night against Montana, which returns all five starters off an NCAA Tournament team last year.

"From this Saturday to next Sunday," Beilein said, "we are going to find out an awful lot about ourselves. The most important thing we will find out is what we need to address to improve. The only way to do that is play these games. I think we are making progress in a lot of areas. It also shows me how far we need to go. There will be spikes in progress, and we will take some steps backward. Expect some inconsistent play in the weeks ahead."

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