Hard To Guard

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Darris Nichols and Joe Mazzulla have a major challenge – and opportunity – in West Virginia's opening round NCAA Tournament game against Arizona on Thursday.

Just a week after the pair combined to defend Connecticut's All-Big East guard A.J. Price, they face Jerryd Bayless, a smooth shooting point guard for the 10th-seeded Wildcats (19-14). Among the most prolific frosh scorers in Pac-10 history, Bayless averages more than 20 points and four assists. Only two other conference players have scored at that clip in their rookie season. One is USC guard O.J. Mayo, the top rated prep player in the nation last year. The other is California's Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1995-96), an eventual NBA pick.

"He has a lot of talent and does a lot of great things," Mazzulla said of the All-Pac-10 player. "Bayless is a great player, and it will be a tough match for me, but I have help with the rest of the team, too."

Besides his quickness off the dribble – Bayless is arguably as effective a slasher as Price – the Phoenix native hit 40 percent of his three-pointers and has 30 more assists than turnovers. He immediately moved into the starting line-up despite the return of a junior and senior duo that saw action last season, and became the first player in school history to score 30-plus points in three straight games.

The concern's not just offensive. Bayless' defensive abilities mirror that of Price, who used superior speed and reaction time to take Nichols out of West Virginia's scoring options in WVU's 78-72 win in the Big East quarterfinals. Nichols struggled to get open on inbounds plays, forcing timeouts and check offs to other options, none of whom handled the ball as well. The Mountaineers were especially hurt in a late four-minute mess when Mazzulla went to the bench with foul trouble, leaving Nichols as the lone guard. The potential pitfalls are similar against Bayless. If either Nichols or Mazzulla sit for elongated periods, WVU will lose a ball handler while the other is pressed by the 6-3, 200-pounder.

"Going through the Big East, you see different things," Nichols said. "You try to prepare for everything. Both (Price and Bayless) are great players and they do different things, and Bayless does some of everything. He gets to the basket, he can shoot. He is a good player."

West Virginia (24-10) will use a mix of Nichols and Mazzulla to slow the SI All-American. Nichols obviously has more game experience and has made plays in the postseason. Mazzulla, however, is laterally quicker and possesses a dogged defensive mentality similar to that of former WVU point guard J.D. Collins. The double-team is designed to both frustrate and tire Bayless, who doesn't have a marquee backup. Reserve guards David Bagga (6-5, 182 lbs., Jr.) and Daniel Dillon (6-3, 197 lbs., Sr.) combine for just 2.6 points, and the rest of the roster is littered with five forwards and two centers, none of whom score more than three points per game. That lack of depth – interim head coach Kevin O'Neill uses a three-guard look – has hurt U of A down the stretch as it lost four of its last six.

In the losses to USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford, Bayless was held to five points below his average and made just three of 12 three-pointers (25 percent). The opposing defensive prowess at least harnessed the guard and, without his outside shooting, allowed foes to better pack pressure inside to limit Arizona's Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. The sophomore forwards average 17 and 13 points per game, respectively, and combine for more than 13 boards. On a poor rebounding team like U of A – which is being edged by one per game – any increased misses are magnified, and among the reasons Bayless' struggles often become those of the Wildcats.

"You see things, and sometimes guys look quicker on film than what they are," Nichols said. "So you can't always tell before tip-off. You watch game film and television and you look at things they do and sometimes they are misleading. I won't know exactly what to expect until I get out there and see what kind of a player he is."

The two teams, which held shoot-arounds today, will play 30 minutes after the Duke-Belmont game featuring the two and 15 seeds.

"I think containing them and their transition first, then stopping shooting will be a key to the game," Mazzulla said. "They will make shots. They can from anywhere. We need to slow (Bayless) down, and in turn slow them down. They have a lot of talent, and we have to contain Jerryd first."

Note: Nichols has tied North Carolina's Ed Cota (1997-2000) for the NCAA record for most games played without fouling out. He can set a new mark against Arizona.

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