The biggest question facing West Virginia heading into last night's Jimmy V Classic showdown against No. 22 Davidson in Madison Square Garden was who would be given the unenviable task of trying to slow talented Wildcats guard Stephen Curry.
In the weeks leading up to the game, one could certainly envision a scenario in which starting point guard Joe Mazzulla was given the first crack at guarding Davidson's junior sharpshooter. Though he would have been giving up a couple of inches to the 6-3 Curry, Mazzulla's aggressiveness would certainly lend itself to hassling Curry, particularly when he had the ball.
Of course that scenario went out the window last Wednesday night when Mazzulla collided with Ole Miss forward Malcolm White in West Virginia's 80-78 win at Tad Smith Coliseum. Mazzulla injured his left shoulder on the play, forcing him out of Saturday's win over Cleveland State.
The junior from Johnston, R.I. started and tried to play against Davidson, but was obviously limited, dribbling mainly with his right hand before taking absorbing another hit on the injured shoulder on a foray into the lane. Mazzulla left the game about midway through the first half and did not return.
Senior off-guard Alex Ruoff may have been an option. Though Ruoff is thought of more for his offense, he has improved his defense considerably over the course of his career, particularly under the tutelage of second-year WVU coach Bob Huggins.
Ruoff's chance to guard Curry was also lost due to a shoulder injury, reportedly suffered against Cleveland State. He did not play.
With no Ruoff or Mazzulla at his disposal, Huggins was limited in his options for defending Curry. So instead of settling on one player or two, the future Hall of Fame head coach used virtually every Mountaineer who entered the game.
Last season in its run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, Davidson excelled in large part due to Curry's ability to run off of screens away from the ball, set his feet, catch and shoot. Former point guard Jason Richards was a master at finding Curry coming off of those screens. Richards averaged nine assists during the tournament as the Wildcats toppled Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before falling to eventual champion Kansas.
With Richards having graduated, Davidson head coach Bob McKillop moved Curry to the point for his junior season. Having the ball in the hands of your best player as much as possible is never a bad thing, and for Curry, it will greatly enhance his stock as an NBA prospect (as if it wasn't already high enough).
By playing on the ball, he obviously was not going to run off of screens to catch and shoot as much as he did in the past, though McKillop does a great job of using inbounds plays to allow Curry to still use those skills. Instead, the Wildcats set a bevy of on-ball screens to free up the talented shooter. With his lightning-quick release, Curry doesn't need a whole lot of space to get his shot off.
Huggins and West Virginia countered by switching on every screen. This gave Curry an assortment of looks, from John Flowers to Devin Ebanks to Da'Sean Butler to even seldom-used reserve Cam Thoroughman.
By doing so, West Virginia never allowed Curry to get comfortable, a big reason why the All-American hit just five of his first 22 shots.
"Their length made me miss some shots," Curry told the Charlotte Observer. "I got kind of worried about their hands getting there and messing up moves or shots I would normally make."
"I was pretty frustrated. There were some shots I usually make. It didn't help when they were coming back. But my teammates and coaches kept telling me to keep shooting."
West Virginia's length also turned Curry into a distributor, and to his credit, he found open teammates several times when he just as easily could have forced a shot in hopes of getting hot. Curry finished with 10 assists.
Even with West Virginia's admirable defensive effort and Curry's rocky shooting start, you still had the sense that he wasn't going away quietly. Like so many other college basketball greats over the years, Curry seems to play his best when the game is on the line. It's why he's a bona fide candidate for National Player of the Year.
Unfortunately for West Virginia, Curry came through yet again in the clutch on the big stage.