The Mountaineers (16-7, 5-5 Big East) have lost three of four, including a pair of games in the closing seconds against nationally-ranked foes. WVU led then-No. 9 Georgetown and then-No. 21 Pitt into the final minute before a late buzzer beater failed to go in against the Hoyas, and did against Pitt. Both times, West Virginia was on the losing end, adding to its trend of playing every foe save Cincinnati close – and yet finding ways to lose. Rutgers has had a similar path. The Scarlet Knights (10-15, 2-10) have lost four in a row. Two of those, however, were in overtime, and RU won at Pitt. They are 1-5 in the league at home and on the road, where they have lost eight of their last 10, though few have been blowouts.
With Rutgers essentially out of any postseason tournament barring a late run, second-year head coach Fred Hill's team has been relegated to a spoiler role. West Virginia has won the last two meetings, 21 of 26 in the WVU Coliseum, and is again favored. It must have this win to continue to compete for a NCAA Tournament bid, and is well rested after one entire week off in which head coach Bob Huggins practiced his team just three times in an effort to restore both energy levels and overall health following bumps and bruises.
"They are very athletic and skilled with a shot blocker in there," said forward Da' Sean Butler, a New Jersey native. "The three-guard is strong. I have played against a lot of these guys before in school, so I know. They are not a young team, but they are still learning to finish games like we are. They have had some bad luck as far as closing games. Most teams would not have some wins they do. We have to go and play them strong."
Literally. Rutgers will trot out a trio of players that are 6-7, 6-9 and 6-11, all weighing between 215 and 235 pounds. While none have the strength of a DeJuan Blair, all will likely perform better from the field than he did. West Virginia cannot attempt to slow any particular one player, because all starters have the ability to score. Add in a bench that has been lengthened by a recovery from nagging injuries, and the Knights, behind J.R. Inman's 13 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and the 10 points and slashing ability of shooting guard Anthony Farmer, could pull an upset.
Rutgers has shot better from the foul line than WVU, though with both failing to seal games down the stretch, its essentially a toss-up if the game is close late. West Virginia could have a slight mental advantage, as it recovered from some psychological fatigue in the last week with the increased time off. Players were able to concentrate on school work and gather socially to not press themselves on missed shots or bungled plays. It's not as though the team has an entirely new feel or approach, but it does appear in better mental shape than it was even one week ago before the loss to Pitt.
"We can't let them win here, especially (in the position WVU is in)," Butler said. "Everybody is ready to go. It's good to be back, but there are a whole lot of other things as well, your school work and social life. You can get to thinking about too many things, or about one thing, like basketball, all the time. This has given us a chance to rest and prepare."