For the first time at home this season, West Virginia will have its hands full. Oh, sure, blowout wins against the likes of Elon, Longwood, Miami of Ohio and Radford were nice. The grind-it-out affair against Cleveland State might have been too close for comfort at times, but it was a win nonetheless.
To this point, however, nobody has provided a stiffer challenge for the Mountaineers than the one they are likely to get tonight when fifth-rated Connecticut comes to the Coliseum for the first of what will be several marquee conference games in Morgantown.
If there is a right way to solve UConn, though, it likely includes a similar blueprint to solving one of those massive 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. That's to say that it's best to start piecing the puzzle together on the outside, while using a collaborative teamwork approach to solidify the interior.
"I think we've got to start with stopping their penetration," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins of the primary key to slowing down the talented Huskies. "If we don't stop their penetration, then they're going to rebound it on us. So, we've got to try to stop their penetration as much as we possibly can."
Enter freshman point guard Truck Bryant. At the beginning of the season, few would have expected Bryant to be a critical factor in West Virginia's hopes of toppling Connecticut. An injury to starting point guard Joe Mazzulla has thrust the first-year floor general into the starting role, which for better or worse has created a baptism by fire scenario for the Brooklyn native.
Bryant will likely draw the unenviable task of trying to guard his UConn counterpart, senior A.J. Price. To his credit, he knows that the task at hand is sizeable, to say the least. Even so, Bryant is eagerly awaiting the matchup with one of the Big East's best.
"He's a scoring point guard," Bryant explained. "I'm just going to try to lock him down. I know it's going to be a hard task, probably the biggest task that I've had so far. I'm just going to try to lock him down.
"It's definitely a big challenge," he continued. "I'm a freshman, he's a senior. He's a more experienced guard than I am, but I'm here and I'm ready to play."
Price by himself would be a handful for any defender, regardless of his experience level. When one factors in the rest of the Connecticut backcourt, the challenge becomes even greater. Aside from Price, the Huskies can also put the ball in the hands of steady senior Craig Austrie and reliable junior Jerome Dyson. Both are among the conference's most underrated players, with the latter actually leading Jim Calhoun's team in scoring with an average of 14.5 points per game.
The fourth member of the UConn backcourt is no stranger to Bryant. Freshman Kemba Walker, who might be the fastest guard in the Big East, was an AAU teammate of Bryant's on the New York-based Gauchos. The two, along with Seton Hall freshman Jordan Theodore (also a Gaucho) are the closest of friends.
All four of the UConn guards possess great quickness, which as Huggins noted, allows them to get into the lane almost at will. The fleetness of Connecticut's backcourt also makes the Huskies a threat to get out in transition following missed shots. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that transition defense has been a point of emphasis in West Virginia's practices over the past couple of days.
"We've been doing a lot of drills that work on trying to stop the fast break and learning how to get back quicker," Bryant said. "They do have quick guards. They may be the quickest in the league. I don't know yet because I haven't played against all the guards, but from what (Huggins) tells us, they are the quickest guards on the league."
If Bryant and fellow starter Alex Ruoff can keep Connecticut's guards out of the lane, West Virginia's chances for a big win increase.
Of course solving the interior the UConn puzzle is just as difficult, if for no other reason than the mere size of the starting frontcourt. Forwards Stanley Robinson and Jeff Adrien check in at 6-9 and 6-7, respectively, with both players also possessing above-average strength.
For the junior from Summit, N.J., squaring off with Thabeet won't be anything new. After all, Smith and the Mountaineers faced the Huskies twice last season, splitting the meetings with a loss at UConn and a win in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The difference this year, according to Smith, is that Thabeet has improved significantly since those meetings.
"He's definitely added a lot more to his game since last year," Smith admitted. "It's going to be a big task for all of us to guard him, but especially for me trying to get him out of the post."
Thabeet still does most of his damage on defense, where he averages 10.5 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per game, the latter statistic placing him third amongst all Division I players in that category. His offense is improving, as the junior and possible NBA lottery pick is averaging a career-best 14 points per game so far this season.
A win over Connecticut would surprise many throughout the college basketball world, but those who wear the Mountaineer uniform would not be amongst them. After all, West Virginia has taken two of the last three meetings between the schools.
Even without the services of UConn-killer Joe Alexander (who averaged 33 points per game in two meetings with the Huskies last season before leaving school early for the NBA), WVU is confident.
"Ain't nothing changed," said Bryant. "I'm happy to be here playing against good competition. I just want to come out with the ‘W'."
"We've just played well," added Smith. "Last year we had Huggs and we have Joe Alexander. We still have Huggs. We'll be fine."