Preview: West Virginia - N.C. State

North Carolina State holds good wins over Michigan and Valparaiso, and will give WVU its second consecutive strenuous challenge of the out-of-conference season.

SCOUTING THE WOLFPACK

Barring foul trouble or injuries, North Carolina State probably won't play more than seven players when it faces West Virginia on Wednesday evening in Charleston.

The iron man act isn't one of choice for new coach Sidney Lowe, but rather one forced upon him by injuries and inexperience. With point guard Engin Atsur expected to miss his second consecutive game, the Pack will go with shortened bench in its efforts to win its first road game of the season.

In the backcourt, Gavin Grant (Jr., 6-7, 210 lbs.) takes up the slack for Atsur. Grant handled the ball most of the game in the Pack's loss to Virginia on Sunday, and his height gives him an advantage in seeing over the defense. He leads the team in scoring at 17.5 points per game, but is barely clear of a 1:1 turnover to assist ratio. He also, as might be expected, rebounds well, grabbing 5.2 per game. Bryan Nieman (Sr., 6-6, 215 lbs.) picked up the starting assignment against Virginia, and will likely do so again against West Virginia. He was one of two backups getting appreciable minutes for Lowe, but averages just 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Courtney Fells (So., 6-4, 195 lbs.) provides more stability at the guard spot, averaging 10.3 points while suffering just three turnovers in six games.

Forwards Brandon Costner (Fr., 6-8, 230 lbs.) and Ben McCauley (So., 6-9, 235 lbs.) are multi-dimensional threats for the Pack. Costner can venture outside to shoot, and tallies 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds. McCauley is the inside threat, and he responds with 13.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per outing.

The main man off the bench will be Dennis Horner, a true freshman that was aggressively recruited by West Virginia. Horner (Fr., 6-7, 200 lbs.) is averaging 4.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes of action per game, but that figure will likely be higher in Atsur's absence.

OUTLOOK

N.C. State is an extremely well-balanced team, with all five starters (counting Atsur) averaging in double figures. The Pack's willingness to share the ball, as well as their ability to play different positions on the floor, makes them difficult to defend.

BlueGoldNews.com
Game Info
Wed Dec. 6
7:00 p.m.

Charleston Civic Center
Records
WVU 5-1, 0-0
NCS 5-1, 0-1
Series
Tied 7-7
TV
Fox Sports Pittsburgh
ESPN Plus
RPI
WVU - 69
NCS - 65
Other than McCauley, who usually patrols the lane and baseline, the Wolfpack is made up of players that are at ease pretty much anywhere on the court. All are in the 6-5 to 6-8 range, all handle the ball well, and all can pass and see the floor. Their height allows them to see over traps, which should make for an interesting matchup with West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone. The Mountaineers can play their signature defense in several different ways, and an early key will be to see how head coach John Beilein starts out against the ACC squad.

The Wolfpack probably has too many drivers and slashers to allow WVU to get away with playing man-to-man for long stretches, so West Virginia will likely switch to a 2-3 zone at times as well. The Pack isn't a great long-range shooting team, but is averaging 50.3% from the floor this year. They drive to the basket well from all angles, and are getting to the free throw line an average of 19 times per game.

In order to win, West Virginia will have to cut down on those drives and force N.C. State to shoot from long range. The 1-3-1 can accomplish that, as it often makes dribble penetrators pay a heavy turnover price, but those teams that can get past the perimeter often find open shooting spots close to the basket. The Mountaineers must keep those sorts of breakdowns to a minimum.

Although WVU is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a running team, the Mountaineers could look to up the pace in this game. With N.C. State coming off a Sunday road trip to Virginia, and with a short bench, West Virginia could get the fatigue factor working in its favor by forcing the Pack to expend energy by getting back on defense in transition. While the Mountaineers certainly don't want to make the game an up and down affair, allowing N.C. State to set the pace could negate the bench advantage West Virginia enjoys.

INJURY REPORT

WVU: None

NCS: Engin Atsur (Hamstring) Out

FAST BREAKS

While Darris Nichols gets much-deserved respect for his performance in running the West Virginia offense, his backcourt mate is doing almost as well. Nichols, viewed as the only playmaking guard in the lineup by many observers, has certainly done an excellent job to date, as he has dished out 24 assists against just five turnovers. But he's not the only guard charged with running the offense, as a great number of Beilein's plays call for both guards to set up offensive chances for teammates. With that knowledge, it might not be a surprise that Alex Ruoff has three more assists than his more experienced teammate.

That doesn't mean, of course, that Ruoff is a better ballhandler or scene-setter than Nichols. It simply shows that the Mountaineer offense isn't a one-guard affair, and that the "two" spot on the West Virginia team isn't a designated shooter. Ruoff's 27 turnovers, against just 11 turnovers, are totals that just about any classic point guard would take. And add in 18 steals (again, tops on the team) and it's clear that the sophomore is creating just as many scoring opportunities for his team as Nichols.

* * *

N.C. State is not high up the charts in terms of steals (31 in six games), but the Pack plays good man-to-man defense. West Virginia's offensive patience and execution will be tested against the visitors. The Mountaineers will have to make the right reads in the offense and drive the ball to create open kickouts to shooters, or, more desirably, chances in close.

Point guard Darris Nichols probably won't have a lot of room to shoot over foes such as Grant, but his quickness could provide him with an edge when he puts the ball on the floor. In this contest, Nichols' can't just sit back and run the offense - he will need to be a penetrator and a scorer.

* * *

Both teams have struggled at the free throw line this year. WVU has made just 60.4% of its tries to date, and N.C. State hasn't been much better, hitting just 64.9% of its tries. In a game that matches teams with similar pedigrees and records, the team that takes advantage of its free throw chances could gain a big advantage.

* * *

The Mountaineers provided a nice salve to WVU's Gator Bowl loss to Florida State in 2005 when they defeated the Wolfpack 82-69 in Raleigh on Jan. 2. WVU also has some nice trends going its way for this game as well. WVU won the only other meeting in Charleston, downing the Pack 86-78 during the 1960-61 season. The Mountaineers are undefeated in games played inside their home state, holding a 4-0 record in such contests.

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Beilein quote to remember: "It's not a game of rebounding. It's a game of possessions."


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