The Mountaineers (10-3, 0-1 Big East) have lost consecutive games largely because they were unable to utilize their quickness vs. larger interior play. Oklahoma beat West Virginia inside while also out-hustling it, an inexcusable offense under first-year head coach Bob Huggins. Notre Dame was simply dominant on the interior, with 2007 Big East All-Rookie Luke Harangody putting up a gaudy line of 29 points and 16 rebounds, five of those on the offensive glass. He hit 11 of 16 from the field and, paired with Tory Jackson, made up 41 of Notre Dame's 69 points in the 13-point WVU loss.
Marquette (11-1, 1-0) plays a completely different style of basketball. Its three-guard, two-forward look is heavily centered upon ball movement and quickness. It won't deliver a punch so much as beat an opponent to it. Junior guards Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews average 15.3, 13.4 and 10.4 points per game, respectively. And though West Virginia guard Alex Ruoff is correct in noting that it's far too early in the season to rely on averages as telling statistics, the trio offers enough game experience and ability to make Marquette a much better team, and difficult out, than Oklahoma or Notre Dame despite the preferential match-ups.
The idea for WVU – besides shooting closer to the 41.3 percent it did against OU than the icy 31.9 versus the Irish – will be to make better decisions in every phase than it has the last 90 minutes of play. The Mountaineers threw away chances to beat the Sooners late in that double overtime contest with poor passes, forced drives and a lack of letting play come to them. Notre Dame led nearly from start to finish by attacking weaknesses not balanced by WVU playing to its strengths, notably team defense and shooting. Now, against the best foe it has faced this year, the Mountaineers must make more smart choices, a potential problem, and possibility, compounded by the vast selection.
"I'll take what they give me," said swingman Da'Sean Butler, who will be faced with numerous shoot-drive options. "I am one of the bigger guys for us on the floor, so I have to be able to drive some in this game. If I shoot way out, that's one less guy to rebound. We have guys who can shoot. I need to try to concentrate on driving some against a team I can. I need to get fouled and hit the free throws. But they are quick and scrappy and play good defense. We have to take care of the ball and go strong."
Marquette, which as won seven in a row since a Nov. 21 loss to Duke, has held foes to 59.8 points per game. It can run waves of players at teams (five subs average more than 13 minutes per game), and that depth has made its offensive averages even more impressive. Unlike West Virginia's starting five, which has handled the vast majority of point production, MU has distributed it among more players. That also means it loses little on either end with substitutions and can continue to hound teams with a variety of man and zone looks. Defensively, its 128 steals and 212 turnovers forced average 10.7 and 17.6, respectively. If the Eagles get close to those numbers, West Virginia will not have a chance. It must value the ball and convert chances, whatever those would be.
"We have to play harder," forward Joe Alexander said. "Obviously there is the size (advantage) and we can shoot over them. But that's something we have not been very good at. It's not an advantage if we can't do that, especially because they are so quick."
Foes have hit 30 percent of their 3-pointers against Marquette. The Mountaineers, who have made 37.6 (181-263) of its tries this year, is the best outside shooting team the Eagles will have played. The respect head coach Tom Crean must respect that, and won't have his team sag off as much as in other games. WVU might also be able to take better advantage of put-back tries, as Marquette hasn't dominated teams on the boards, gaining just a 38.1 to 31.3 per game average advantage.
"Even though they are small, they have great speed and cover a lot of ground," Ruoff said. "What they don't have in height they make up for in speed. It could be as hard as other games to get shots off. I think we have to exploit mismatches inside and score there. They have people with confidence, and we're not playing very good basketball right now, defensively or offensively. Oklahoma wasn't good (for us), and we haven't played well since. But this win tomorrow will get us back to where we were."
That will largely depend upon making the right reads and selections. This, perhaps more than any of West Virginia's first 13 games, will be a test of in-game decisions and split-second choices. It is, in short, a battle of basketball intelligence as well as ability.
Note: Tip-off is at 2 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN-Plus.