One of the biggest reasons, literally, for West Virginia's struggles in a 61-55 loss to Connecticut on Tuesday night was the size of the Huskies' front line. Against WVU, the starting trio of 6-9 Stanley Robinson, 6-7 Jeff Adrien and 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet combined for 37 points and 35 rebounds in the UConn victory.
When WVU invades the Bradley Center tomorrow for a noon tipoff with Marquette, don't expect the same problems to occur. If they do, it won't be because of any noticeable size advantage the Golden Eagles have over West Virginia.
Though longtime head coach Tom Crean has moved on to Indiana, virtually all of the player personnel at Marquette remains the same. The perimeter trio of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal seems as though it has been playing for the Milwaukee-based school since the Al McGuire days.
"They're almost the total opposite of what we just played," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said of the Golden Eagles. "They play three guards and another guy that has great perimeter skills (junior forward Lazar Hayward) and a post guy (senior Dwight Burke). They are terrific off the dribble. They are as good off the dribble as anyone in the country."
While Burke starts and plays 19 minutes a game, the 6-8, 250-pound forward isn't a threat to score the ball, at least not as much as the four other players who fill out the starting lineup for head coach Buzz Williams.
"They primarily use him to rebound and block out and set screens," Huggins explained. "I think they're trying to get him to be a little more offensive oriented here in the past few games, but it's those four guys mainly."
In one sense, it seems like a much better matchup for the Mountaineers, a team devoid of any true post players with Big East experience. On the other hand, the matchup is similar to the Connecticut game, what with Marquette's experience-laden lineup.
Its this latter portion of the matchup which has Huggins worried the most. No matter how talented a team is, there is seldom any substitute for experience, particularly in a conference as rugged as the 16-team Big East. With the starting senior quartet, and an experienced junior in Hayward, Marquette certainly has plenty of guys who have been through the league wars.
"Again, we're in a situation where they start four seniors and a junior," Huggins said. "They're good. These are guys who have had Marquette in the upper echelon of our league for the past three years. You're not just playing against a three guard lineup. Your playing against four really good guys.
"You think about James, Matthews and McNeal," he continued. "This is the fourth time they've gone through the league. McNeal is going to be an all-league player this year and Matthews might be all-league as well. James was first-team all-league as a sophomore."
All three will likely finish amongst the top five scorers in the storied history of Marquette basketball, which claimed the 1977 national title under the guidance of the legendary McGuire.
West Virginia, meanwhile, plays an eight-man rotation which includes three freshman, two sophomores, two juniors and just one senior. Huggins has praised the efforts of his team, particularly the three freshmen who are playing more than anyone would have thought. He also pointed out, however, that there are many situations in which experience trumps all, particularly in conference play.
"What I've found over the years is that guys as they're in the program, in the league for an extended period of time, they understand that you've got to play harder longer," he said. "You've got to sustain your intensity. You've got to play every plays; you can't take plays off."
As an example, Huggins used the third personal foul on starting point guard Truck Bryant Tuesday night. On one particular offensive possession for the Huskies, Bryant let down his guard ever so slightly after his man had passed the ball. The experienced UConn player noticed, and made a sharp cut right in front of Bryant. The freshman reacted by grabbing the cutting Husky with his hands, thereby grabbing the attention of the referee, who promptly whistled the foul.
"I think guys when they're in the league longer, they don't have those letdowns," Huggins said.
Williams, who spent one season as the head coach at the University of New Orleans, is pretty similar to his coaching mentor Crean in terms of his preferred style of play, save for a few tweaks here and there.
"They play a little bit more 1-3-1 than Tom played," Huggins noted. "They still run a lot of sets. They might not run as many sets, but then again nobody in the country runs as many sets as Tom does. They're still a set-oriented team and when the sets don't work, they're going to take you off the dribble."