Preview: West Virginia - Connecticut

West Virginia gets into the meat of Big East play with a Top 25 match-up as the Mountaineers play host to Connecticut tonight at 7 p.m.

SCOUTING THE HUSKIES

The No. 5 Huskies – who would have been No. 1 if not for a Dec. 29 home loss to Georgetown – are the highest-ranked team to play at the Coliseum since WVU defeated No. 2 UCLA in 2007 and the highest-ranked team head coach Bob Huggins will have faced since being hired by his alma mater. West Virginia had struggled with UConn, losing 10 of the first 11 in league play before winning two of the last three, the latter victory mainly because of forward Joe Alexander. Now the No. 22 Mountaineers must find a way to slow All-Big East center Hasheem Thabeet. The 7-3, 263-pound Tanzanian averages a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds while shooting a sizzling 67 percent from the field. His 49 blocks easily lead the team, and his wingspan and prowess inside will make it very difficult for players like Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks to convert from close range. Rebounding and shooting will also be at a premium, as Thabeet was one of several players Huggins was referring to when he stated his team would have to compete so much harder to play at the same level. If there's a game in which WVU misses a 6-10 inside force, it's here.

And it's not as though UConn head coach Jim Calhoun lacks talent at the other four spots. Guard A.J. Price, 6-2, 181 pounds, and forward Jeff Adrien, 6-7, 243 pounds, are as solid and seasoned as they come. The two seniors combine with three juniors for among Calhoun's most experienced lineups ever, as the veteran coach routinely recruits NBA-caliber talent that doesn't stick for four years. Price averages 10 points and three rebounds and, though he has struggled from the field and the foul line, has a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. He can finish in transition and shoot it from anywhere. Adrien lacks the outside ability Calhoun would prefer, but has hit 54.7 percent of his shots and is a very good offensive rebounder. His line of 14.4 points and almost 10 boards per game are the most well-rounded outside of Thabeet's.

Power forward Stanley Robinson seems to have squared his life and academics away, and returned eight games into the season. He has played in all five games, but started just once. The Huskies list him as among the first five for West Virginia, and his athleticism alone should be a major boost. The 6-9, 210-pounder has played about 20 minutes on average, hitting for seven points and four boards. Not a great shooter, Robinson's game is all inside, where he continually attacks and uses his physical tools to create mismatches and opportunities for Connecticut.

Shooting guard Jerome Dyson, 6-4, 190 pounds, is averaging a team-best 14.5 points. He can create his shot and get to the line, and he prefers closer looks to launching from beyond the arc. A solid rebounder with great floor instincts, Dyson's 47 assists and 24 steals underline a great all-around game. Backups Craig Austrie, a 6-3, 176-pound guard, and Gavin Edwards, 6-9, 234-pound forward, give the coaching staff an excellent first seven. Austrie, who has started 12 of 13 games this year, will play at least half of the game. The senior ranks third all-time on the school's free throw shooting percentage list, though his 30 for 38 performance this season (78.9 percent) is worse than his career percentage of 83. Austrie's shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 40 from three-point range (14 of 35), and West Virginia must challenge whenever he has the ball. Edwards is yet another inside-based player who doesn't take any shots from deep. His five points and three boards don't do justice to the minutes he provides, which allow Calhoun to rotate other players and give all some rest. No player outside Adrien (33 minutes) plays more than 29 minutes per game, though obviously that could change entering conference play. A good shooter who makes the most of his chances, the junior is simply biding his time until he comes a full-time starter next year.

OUTLOOK

If this isn't one of Calhoun's top squads in terms of overall ability, it becomes among his best when one factors in experience, ability to play together – the issues of lazy play and lack of floor energy of late last year seem to be remedied somewhat – and raw athleticism and size. When UConn takes the floor at the WVU Coliseum, fans will see what Huggins would like his team to at least physically resemble in coming years. This is likely a national title-contending team, but one that does have noticeable flaws.

BlueGoldNews.com
Game Info
Tue. Jan. 6
7 p.m. EST

WVU Coliseum
Records
WVU 11-2, 1-0
UConn 12-1, 1-1
Series
UConn 12-4
TV
ESPNU
MSN Radio
RPI
WVU - 9
UConn - 8

The Huskies don't shoot extremely well from the outside, and only two starters, and three players on the roster, will be able to challenge West Virginia from there. That will allow the Mountaineers to pack the inside a bit more and hang off select players when they are outside, cutting off some of the ability to dump passes inside or score on backcuts. The proximity of defending should also allow for quicker help on double teams in the post and force more of UConn's scoring chances away from the basket. That and choking the transition game have been the ideas of many clubs thus far, though few outside of Georgetown have had the talent to do it. The Mountaineers, for their size, defend as well s any team in the nation. They'll challenge the passes and force the Huskies to work for every point.

That will be enough, however, only if Alex Ruoff and Butler can make some threes. That proved to be a great equalizer in one of West Virginia's more recent wins over the Huskies (that under former head coach John Beilein), and even with Huggins, a solid game from the outside is a major plus. WVU will muster the muscle and hustle to hang and bang, but the points won't come as easily around the rim, and Connecticut should provide the biggest challenge yet, and perhaps this season, in terms of attacking the basket and having the size to simply toss a shot up and go get it. This game, though having major talent, won't be pretty. Both teams will play physically and attempt to negate the other from running any sets. West Virginia can trump UConn on defense, but without getting a few shots to fall or finding a way to outmaneuver bigger bodies, it could still find itself short on the scoreboard as well as the lineup at the end of the game. Look for a classic Big East slugfest: jersey holds, shoulders into ballhandlers, body blockouts on the boards and perhaps a thunderous dunk or three. WVU can win, but it must slow the Huskies in transition, be even or better on the boards and convert more shots. In short, as Huggins says, we've got to do what we do better than they do what they do.

INJURY REPORT

WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder). Jonnie West, out (broken foot).

UConn: A.J. Price, will play (recovering from ACL surgery).

FAST BREAKS

This is just the second true road game UConn has played this season. The other was at Buffalo. The Huskies are 1-0 on the road and 4-0 in neutral site games. West Virginia is 5-0 at home this season. Huggins is 1-2 against UConn; 1-1 as WVU's coach and 0-1 while at Cincinnati. His Bearcats lost 96-91 in the second round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. Huggins and Calhoun are two of the four winningest active coaches.

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West Virginia is back in the rankings in both major polls at 25th in the AP and 22nd in the ESPN/USA Today. The Mountaineers have been ranked 23 weeks since Jan. 3, 2005.

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WVU is 21-4 in Big East home games over the last four years. It is 32-0 under Huggins when outshooting a foe, and is averaging more than 80 points per game in home outings under its second-year coach.

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The Mountaineers are outscoring opponents 283-145 in bench points this season. The West Virginia bench scored 33 points against Seton Hall in a 26-point road win in the last contest. That was the largest margin of victory for WVU in a Big East away game since it beat Miami 82-54 on March 1, 1997. Miami is now in the ACC.

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The Big East has a league-record nine teams ranked in the latest polls, including four in the top 10 in the ESPN/USA Today Poll, with the No. 1 team (Pitt) in each poll. Huggins has called it the "best league in the history of college basketball."


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