Preview: West Virginia - UMass

The Mountaineers and Minutemen both showed on Tuesday night they are taking the NIT seriously. Now the old A-10 foes will have to begin the process of racking up quality wins as they try to advance through the bracket.

SCOUTING THE MINUTEMEN

Although forward Stephane Lasme gets much of the publicity for his prodigious blocked shot totals, he's not the only standout on the Minuteman roster. The UMass front line has been a dominating presence for much of the season, and will be a tough challenge for West Virginia.

Center Rashaun Freeman (Sr., 6-9, 255 lbs.) leads UMass in scoring at 15.0 points per game and is second in rebounds at 8.3 per outing. As might be expected, he does most of his damage in close, and hits an excellent 61.3% of his shots. Gary Forbes (Jr., 6-7, 220 lbs.) can also score inside, but has an outside complement as well, as he hits a three-pointer on the average of once per outing to keep defenses honest. He averages 13.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, but doesn't shoot as well as Freeman or Lasme.

Lasme (Sr., 6-8, 220 lbs.) gets most of his notice for his 165 blocked shots (good for second in the country), but is an all-around force in the paint. He averages 13.5 points and a team-best 9.4 rebounds per game, and makes 62.0% of his shots. The forward, a native of Gabon, is tied with Freeman in offensive rebounds at 119 each – an indication of their relentless work on the glass.

The backcourt isn't quite as skilled, but there's enough talent to make the Minutemen good enough to knock off teams such as Louisville on the road. Point guard Chris Lowe (So., 6-0, 160 lbs.) runs the show, but still finds time to score 7.0 points per game, while shooting guard James Life takes his title seriously. Of his 281 shots, 214 have come from beyond the arc – a ratio that might even make John Beilein blink. Life (Sr., 6-6, 190 lbs.) is successful on 38.8% of those shots, while puts him in double figures at 11.3 points per game. With only 43 assists, however, it's clear that Lowe's job it to spot up and shoot.

Off the bench, guard Tiki Mayben (Fr., 6-2, 180 lbs.) dishes out 4.1 assists per game, a figured helped by the fact that he started the first dozen games of the season. He is a solid sub for Lowe, which means that the UMass attack doesn't suffer from continuity issues when he checks in. Ricky Harris (Fr., 6-2, 175 lbs.) is the fourth guard in the rotation, and makes good use of his ten-plus minutes per game by averaging 4.7 points per outing.

On the front line, Etienne Brower gets the most time when one of the three starters is off the court. He tallies 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Swingman Brandon Thomas can fill in at either guard or forward, and chips in with 4.1 points per outing in his utility role.

OUTLOOK

The history of this series will be interesting to WVU and UMass fans, but it won't have an effect on either the players or coaches of the current teams, who have no inkling of the fierce battles fought more than a decade ago. This matchup is no less entertaining, however, than those historical contests.

BlueGoldNews.com
Game Info
Thu Mar 15
9:00 p.m.

WVU Coliseum
Records
WVU 23-9
UMass 24-8
Series
WVU 27-13
TV
ESPNU
Sirius Channel: None
RPI
WVU - 57
UMass - 61
West Virginia will again try to untrack its transition game in order to minimize the shot blocking and rebounding prowess of UMass, which rides a strong frontcourt. The matchup of West Virginia's guards and outside shooting versus the Minutemen's inside strength should be a familiar one to WVU fans. UMass must pass up early shot options or the temptation to hoist long-range jumpers in order to maximize its effectiveness, while the Mountaineers will try to steal some points in transition. Head coach John Beilein admitted after the Delaware State game that it is becoming more and more difficult to score in the half-court (as the Mountaineers so aptly demonstrated against the Hornets as they shut down the DSU offense), so it won't be a surprise to see WVU hustling the ball up the court at every opportunity. In order to do that, however, it will have to keep UMass off the boards – a tough task against a team that outrebounded foes by nearly eight per game and piled up 366 offensive retrievals on the season.

West Virginia will have to get strong rebounding games from Rob Summers and Joe Alexander if it hopes to advance to the third round. Summers has displayed a sense of aggressiveness on the glass over the last half of the season, but will be facing a front line of Georgetown dimensions in Thursday's game. And although Alexander certainly isn't going to line up and bang foes out of position, he does have the ability to leap with anyone in the country. When he is playing the wing in West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone, he has to get down into the lane to rebound when shots go up, especially when he is on the offside. If he does not, the Minutemen will play volleyball on the boards.

This could also be a game in which Wellington Smith makes his presence felt, even though he had something of a shaky outing in the first round. The Mountaineers will need every hand available to avoid being swept away by a series of stickbacks.

UMass' big weaknesses both come in the area of fouls. The Minutemen make just 62.2% of their free throws, so it would not be a bad idea for the Mountaineers to defend more aggressively than they did against Delaware State, which somehow played the entire 40 minutes without once going to the line. While it's true that DSU did chuck up a number of perimeter shots, it also drove the lane with much more impunity than it should have. Of course, West Virginia doesn't have a great deal of depth in the front court, given its eight man rotation, but the Mountaineers can't back down when UMass gets the ball in close.

The UMass front court can be a bit foul-prone, as both Lasme and Freeman have committed 107 fouls and combined for eight disqualifications. West Virginia has to be aggressive and go at the UMass front line, which is always the best way to challenge shot blockers. Timid play inside will likely result in an end to WVU's season.

INJURY REPORT

WVU: None

UMass: None

FAST BREAKS

UMass has killed several hundred trees in trumpeting the feats of Stephane Lasme, who is featured over and over again, with only slight variations on the theme, throughout UMass' press releases. However, one stat that the senior center has recorded is truly noteworthy. This year, he has produced four triple doubles (double figures in points, rebounds and blocks. That ties the single-season record, currently held by Drexel's Michael Anderson and Cal's Jason Kidd. That pair recorded their triple doubles in points, rebounds and assists, making Lasme the first to include blocked shots in the stat runup.

* * *

Many observers gripe when evaluating a coach that has a losing record in the postseason, without thinking about the differences in tournament play from regular season competition. There aren't many easy pickings in the NCAAs and NIT, where just getting selected is an accomplishment.

John Beilein, however, isn't satisfied with just getting there. Beilein is 8-3 at WVU in postseason play, with five NCAA and three NIT wins.

* * *

UMass is promoting Lasme for All-American honors with a national mailing of "Sultan of Swat" Flyer Swatters featuring Lasme's face. That seems a bit cheesy in the age of DVDs and streaming media websites.

* * *

Although Beilein basically deferred comment on facing Luke Bonner, who impatiently bailed out on the Mountaineer program two years ago, point guard Darris Nichols did not. The pair were good friends at West Virginia, and Bonner's departure left a mark on Nichols.

"He's a hard worker and a great guy," Nichols noted. "It hurt me when he left. We were the only two freshmen on the team. I didn't really expect it. It hit me off guard. He was my best friend I had here."

With Nichols' soft-spoken style, it's hard to tell if there will be extra motivation to get the win against the Minutemen, but you can bet it will be present, it unstated, among the WVU coaching staff.


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