So Sunday's game against a down Notre Dame, if ever there were such a thing with the Irish having a 13-8 overall mark and splitting its initial eight conference games, is a chance to splash onto the national scene, albeit in the midst of Super Bowl country. WVU, in sixth place in the Big East, has an opportunity to beat its first upper-echelon league foe and register win 16 with six regular season games plus the Big East Tournament left.
"I never like to name a magic number," WVU center Yinka Sanni said. "You say those numbers and it's scary. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves and we have some big-time schools we have to play against. Calling out those numbers is kind of risky for us. To pull it out and try to hit 20, we might be disappointed."
South Florida and Notre Dame got in last season with 19 and 18 wins, respectively, among the lower totals nationally. WVU will get a break against a Notre Dame team that is 10-1 at home this season and unbeaten in three Big East games there. The crowd, usually near 5,000 at the Joyce Center, will be depleted by the 5:30 p.m. tip time, one hour before the Super Bowl between the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts – the two largest NFL fan bases that make-up the Irish attendance. Notre Dame has ranked among the top 15 in the nation in average attendance over the past four seasons, finishing 12th in 2003-04 with an average of 6,650 fans per game.
"It's exciting," said Sanni, who leads the team with an average of 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. "Everybody's dream is to make it (to the NCAA Tournament). If we can go out to Notre Dame and beat them it will help our momentum and our chances."
West Virginia is just 1-14 all-time against the Irish, however, and will face a backcourt of Charel Allen and Tulyah Gaines that averages a combined 25 points per game, with Allen, a versatile player that can slash or pop from the outside, hitting for 18 per game in conference play. The twosome have nearly an even ratio of assists to turnovers, however, and could be prone to the pressing, fast style WVU head coach Mike Carey will often run. The Irish have been prone to mistakes, both forced and unforced, and their 353 total turnovers through 21 games are just 77 off of last season's 430 in 30 outings. The current totals are an average of 16.8 per game, and will tally more than 560 if that number holds and Notre Dame manages to play 30 contests. That edge appears to be a major one, though West Virginia has 415 turnovers itself, though it has forced 421.
The other match-up of note is Sanni's ability to balance Notre Dame center Melissa D'Amico. The 6-5 junior has a three inch listed height advantage and is spelled often, average 22 minutes per game to Sanni's 26.7, which would be close to 30 if the junior had not fouled out of games earlier in the season. Sanni is the more physical player, and she will need to be able to muscle D'Amico inside while playing smart and staying off the bench because of fouls.
"When I am on the floor, a lot of things come up better for us," Sanni said. "Knowing that I can stay on there helps us. When I am on the bench, the post play does seem to get down a bit. I think it was a little overaggressiveness earlier. I was getting over late and since then I have increased my scouting a little bit and learned some more tendencies of my opponents and the personnel and postmen of other teams. My freshman year, they demolished me down low. I have a chip on my shoulder now against them. Play hard and smart and nothing ticky-tack."
Sanni's inside prescience has lifted WVU of late. The scoring from the blocks has forced double teams, and that has resulted in increased open looks from the outside, something the Mountaineeers have no qualms about taking advantage of with LaQuita Owens and Sparkle Davis. Owens has made 59 of 171 3-pointers (34.5 percent) while Davis has drilled 37 of 108 (34.3).
"We'll play inside-out and try to kick it in to Yinka and Chakia (Cole) and get that going," Owens said. "If they get double-teamed, they have to be strong with the ball and then kick it out to our shooters. We'll have to move to a position where they can see us and hopefully the shots will fall."
Note: The Sunday evening and Monday morning forecast for South Bend calls for snow showers accumulating six-plus inches at minimum with lows of zero degrees and highs of six. The expected wind chill is 17 below zero. Carey is currently on the road recruiting in New York, and is slated to meet the team in Indiana. Another concern is the post-game flight back.