SCOUTING THE REBELS
WVU's performances against Iowa and Kentucky in the Las Vegas Invitational did more to create questions than answer them. The idea, certainly, was for the coaching staff and players to up the skill level and test the Mountaineers' ability in a variety of ways. What emerged was increased concern over foul shooting, lack of a killer instinct – head coach Bob Huggins has called it stepping on the throat – and no go-to player when the team needs a bucket or can't hit a shot. The players admitted they weren't as deep as many covering the program assumed, that they lacked floor leadership and that, when finally challenged by UK, all largely failed to respond in any manner.
But lest that read like a total tournament loss, it wasn't. West Virginia (4-1) played better competition, split a pair of games and allowed freshmen like Devin Ebanks to get a legit taste of major conference inside ability. It learned more about its current squad make-up and prepped itself for the first road game, which occurs tonight against Ole Miss (5-1). The Rebels, according to Huggins, might have the best guard play WVU has seen to date.
David Huertas and Chris Warren are hitting for 19 and 23 points per game, by far the most of any tandem played to date. Huertas, a 6-5, 200 pound shooting guard, has perfect size and is making a sizzling 51.9 percent from the floor and 45.5 from three-point range. He's also converting at the foul line, meaning a mere hack job won't suffice. The Puerto Rico native is also a solid rebounder, averaging a team-best five per contest. He'll hit the glass on both ends of the floor, and has the ability to score in transition and create a shot. His play dictates much of what the Rebels are able to do offensively, and slowing the junior will be a major task. Warren, at 5-10 and 165, is better off the dribble and likes to distribute more than Huertas. The sophomore is taking more than 15 shots per game on average, and 40 of the 91 season attempts are from three-point range. If he stays cool from there – Warren has made just 13 of the 40 thus far – WVU should have some long rebound chances. Warren does have the best assist-to-turnover ratio of any guard yet played, and his 17 steals back his quickness.
Two-guard Terrico White is a bit of a fill-in thus far for head coach Andy Kennedy, who coached under Huggins at Cincinnati. The Memphis native, at 6-5 and 211 pounds, is serviceable, but doesn't jump out on film like his counterparts. At 5.7 points and four rebounds, White won't beat teams alone, but has enough ability to make plays at key times. He is just six games into his collegiate career, however, and is quickly grasping the game at this level. Rated the No. 17 shooting guard by Scout.com, he has the highest upside of any Kennedy recruit.
Forwards Malcolm White and DeAundre Cranston seem mere also-rans in the Ole Miss scheme. The pair combine to average just seven points and 10 boards per game and aren't as polished as Kentucky's inside players. White, 6-9, 217 pounds, is more active and defends well. He has yet to take a three-pointer, however, a bit of an oddity considering Cranston, the better fit inside at 6-9 and 251 pounds, has hoisted six. Cranston plays less than half the game on average and doesn't shoot well. He can distribute from his post slot, however, and can kick outside to for open jumpers. This frontcourt isn't one that can beat West Virginia by itself, but it has enough ability to boost the effectiveness of the guards.
The main reserves are Terrance Henry, Zach Graham and Murphy Holloway. Henry, a 6-9, 192-pound freshman, is obviously undersized in terms of weight. But he has played well against lower-level teams and has the third-most rebounds on the team. Like many of Kennedy's recruits, he has great ability that only needs honed. Graham is the team's best shooter, and his 6-6, 225-pound frame allows him to take contact well. The sophomore is a great addition off the bench, and has started twice this season. Holloway, another top 100 recruit, was the South Carolina Player of the Year. He is converting 66 percent of his shots and averages five rebounds.
Unlike the UK game, this isn't a mismatch of match-ups. West Virginia lacks the height of the Ole Miss ballhandlers, but should be able to manage the inside better than it did in the Vegas final. One would reason, too, that the Mountaineers will shoot better from the foul line and that Alex Ruoff probably won't shoot as poorly as he did against the Wildcats (one for 10 from three-point range) for the remainder of the season. The question will be if WVU can contain Kennedy's three-guard style and cut down on any runs.
|Wed. Dec. 3
9 p.m. EST
Smith Coliseum in Oxford, Miss.
FSN South, ESPN Full Ct.
WVU - 146
Mississippi - 25
Mississippi can pile the points together quickly because of its ability to run and finish. Normally something done by West Virginia under Huggins, the transition game will play a major part in the outcome. It's unlikely the half court execution of both teams will loom as large as WVU's last outing, but if the Mountaineers can't run through the motion offense and make solid choices on shot selection and passing, not much else will matter. Halfcourt likely won't win the game by itself – but it could lose it.
This has the potential to be a breakout game for several players. Devin Ebanks should be able to attack Ole Miss, and if he can get some help from Da'Sean Butler and the outside game he can begin to showcase the skill set that made him a top recruit. Both teams need another solid win to add to the resume', and though the game isn't an indicator of what the squads can do in-conference – the season and development of both aren't far enough along – it is one that could crush confidence if lost. It reads as overly simplistic, but West Virginia needs to show its ability to bounce back, both in shooting and overall game intelligence and execution. A pair of consecutive subpar performances could prove harmful to more than just the record.
Ole Miss is 37-3 at home since Kennedy's hiring in 2006. The Tad Smith Coliseum, called the Tad Pad by Rebel fans, holds 8,910 and has seen significant renovations over the last three years. Smith was a three-sport letterman and Ole Miss athletic director.
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This is the first basketball game between the schools and West Virginia's first basketball game in the state of Mississippi. The two schools have very little athletic history – this contest was setup only because of the relationship between Huggins and Kennedy – but the Mountaineers did beat the Rebels to stop the nation's then-longest bowl losing streak in the 2000 Music City Bowl. Another (odder) connection: WVU's Jarrod West, who sank the banked three-pointer to beat Huggin's Cincinnati team in the 1998 NCAA Round of 32, was from Natchez, Miss.
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Ruoff needs 18 points to reach 1,000 for his career. He would be WVU's 45th 1,000 point scorer. Four of those have come within the last five years (Tyrone Sally, Jo Herber, Kevin Pittsnogle and Patrick Beilein). Butler needs 93 to reach 1,000. Darris Nichols had 993 career points and Mike Gansey had 976. With double-figure scoring, Butler will record his 50th such game.