Arkansas has a nicely balanced team which can shoot from three-point range or take the ball to the basket. The scoring, rebounding and defensive loads are spread out among a primary seven-man rotation that is aiming for a trip to the NCAA tournament.
The top three backcourt players are all new to Arkansas this year, but have meshed very well to help the Hogs off to a 4-0 start. Freshman guard Patrick Beverly (6-1, 170 lbs.) was expected to help Arkansas this year, but the Illinois native has taken a primary role. He leads the Hogs in scoring from his shooting guard spot, averaging 15.3 points per game on an eye-opening 63.6% shooting rate from the field. He also has taken quickly to defense in college, having recorded 14 steals through four games. Junior backcourt mate Gary Ervin (6-0, 175 lbs.) is similar in his efficiency from the floor. A transfer from Mississippi State, he averages 11.3 points per game on a 61.6 shooting percentage. The swingman's turnover to assist ratio of 1-1 is his only noticeable shortcoming to date. Junior college transfer Sonny Weems (6-5, 200 lbs.) has likewise been very good in the early going, averaging 13.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game from his swingman spot.
The front line doesn't quite have the backcourt's numbers, but has been very productive nonetheless. Center Steven Hill (7-0, 250 lbs.) provides strength in the midst of the athletic, slashing group around him. He averages 5.5 points and 2.8 boards per game, and has already rejected 21 shots. Junior forward Vincent Hunter (6-10, 225 lbs.) blends height and athleticism into a tough matchup for many teams. He averages 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, but might be a bit more comfortable away from the basket, as he shoots better from three-point range than from inside the arc.
Off the bench, junior Charles Thomas, who has started two games, provides relief on the front line. Yet another long player (6-8, 235 lbs.), Thomas checks in with 8.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. He started against Marist in UA's semifinal win, and could replace Hunter in the starting lineup against West Virginia as well. Darian Townes (Jr., 6-10, 255 lbs.) lets the Razorbacks go even bigger up front, but he has seen his minutes diminish as head coach Stan Heath has gone with a more athletic lineup to date. Still, in 15.8 minutes of action per game, he is averaging 7.0 points and 2.3 boards.
Another day, another step up in competition.
|Sun Nov 26|
The Milk House
Walt Disney World
WVU 5-0, 0-0
UA 4-0, 0-0
WVU - 63
UA - 15
To hang in the game, West Virginia must take advantage of UA's one weak point – ball control. The Hogs have 74 turnovers through four games, and can be a bit sloppy in its ballhandling as they apply pressure to the defense via dribble drives and transition tempo. WVU will need to again force turnovers, and use the resulting extra possessions with efficiency to match Arkansas' excellent shooting. It will be quite interesting to see if UA can dribble penetrate West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone, or if the Mountaineers are quick enough to stop that tactic and force the Razorbacks into a different offensive approach. Arkansas is shooting 49.8% from the field and 41.2% from three-point range, so it's clear West Virginia will have to get the Hogs out of their comfort zone if it wants to bring home the trophy.
Offensively, West Virginia will have its hands full with a quick, athletic UA defense. West Virginia has faced speedy teams, and teams with some bulk, but Arkansas can deploy lineups filled with both of those characteristics, as well as height. WVU may well have to get a few of its signature backdoor cuts in order to loosen up Arkansas' defensive pressure; otherwise it could struggle to get open three-point looks.
A final point of emphasis will be defensive transition for the Mountaineers. Arkansas will run at every opportunity, so West Virginia must get more than one defender back quickly when UA comes up with the ball on the defensive end. That, of course, is always a point of emphasis with head coach John Beilein, but WVU has to be particularly conscious of it against the quick-running Razorbacks.
UA's starting guard trio has made 39 of its 49 free throw attempts, and 20 of its 40 three-point tries. West Virginia's 1-3-1 will be stressed to its limits as it will have to close on outside shooters, yet prevent the Hog guards from faking and penetrating on drives to the basket.
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West Virginia's great starts against Montana and Western Michigan were obviously important to those wins. The Mountaineers maintained the early double-digit advantages for most of those two games, which is something they have been able to do frequently under John Beilein. The Mountaineers are 68-8 overall under Beilein when leading by 10 or more points in a game.
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Centers Rob Summers and Jamie Smalligan are combining for 11.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. If the pair can keep those averages through the entire year, it would be a major boost for the Mountaineers. Duplicating those totals against Arkansas might be a bit much to expect, however.
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Four different players (Darris Nichols, Da'Sean Butler, Joe Alexander and Frank Young) led the Mountaineers in scoring in their first four games. Nichols became the first two-time leader with his career high 18 points against Western Michigan.
If WVU can continue this balanced, unselfish play, it will have a chance to achieve beyond most expectations for this year. With Butler, Jamie Smalligan and sharpshooter Devan Bawinkel coming off the bench, West Virginia should be more balanced in scoring than it was a year ago, and able to avoid the long scoring droughts that sometimes plagued last year's squad.