Preview: West Virginia - South Florida

A three-in-four game homestand begins at high noon Saturday with a showdown West Virginia needs to win.


South Florida, just 6-10 and 1-3 in Big East play, is by far the most beatable foe the Mountaineers will play in the next six games, and an opponent that must be defeated for WVU to continue to defend its home court. The Bulls have dropped three off four and five of seven, and have experienced a four-game skid this season. Their guard-oriented play would be fine with additional scoring support inside. But expecting Dominique Jones and Jesus Verdejo to carry a mediocre squad without it forces them to overextend. Jones, a 6-4, 210-pounder, averages a team-best 17.3 points per game with 4.4 rebounds. The guard is logging some major minutes at almost 37 per game, but his legs and shooting have held thus far. Jones is making 41 percent from the floor and 37.2 percent from three-point range. He has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, and can handle decently. Verdejo is second in scoring at 14.4 points, though his shooting percentages are slightly lower than Jones's. At 6-4 and 205 pounds, the two are built similarly, and their stat lines are nearly alike except for Veredjo's tendency toward turnovers.

Chris Howard is the third-guard in head coach Stan Health's lineup. The 6-3, 200-pounder is scoring about seven points per game with 3.4 boards but his range isn't great. Howard has made just 25 percent of his three-point attempts. He is a pure ball handler, and isn't expected to score much. For a 6-3 player, his 45 defensive rebounds are impressive, especially considering that ranks just behind Jones for the team lead. Those numbers also indicate how weak USF's interior play is. Stating forwards Mobolaji Ajayi and Eladio Espinosa combine for just 6.4 points per outing on average and tally less than eight rebounds per contest. Neither has made a three-pointer all year – a combined 0-for-3 – and are not a threat from the outside. Espinosa, 6-7, 220 pounds, is a better converter inside, but plays just 14-plus minutes per game. Ajayi, 6-9, 225 pounds, isn't hitting well from anywhere, especially the free throw line where he has missed 15 of 27 attempts. He's also a hacker, having fouled out of four games thus far and registered 54 fouls.

Backup forward Aris Williams, 6-9, 235 pounds, has six starts this season. He's good around the rim, but can't operate much outside of the blocks. His defensive ability is average, and he is usable in spurts. Center Alex Rivas is also used in the frontcourt. At 6-10, 230 pounds, the Dominican Republic native is converting on 52.8 percent of his shots, but struggles from the line. The season-ending injury to guard Mike Mercer (ACL tear) has left Health incredibly thin in the backcourt. Justin Leemow, a 6-1, 175 pound freshman from Brooklyn, has been forced into a greater role because of the loss. He has played in all 16 games with two starts and his 10 minutes per game average should increase. Leemow is trying to find his shot – he is 26 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range – and though his quickness is decent, he still must mature into the college game.


South Florida doesn't have major size or depth, and the reliance on one aspect of play has hurt this season. West Virginia matches up well, and should not be burned from the outside. From all indications on paper, with the game being a sellout at home with the students in, the Mountaineers should win. But USF is improving, and there are no easy games in the Big East. Top-ranked Pitt struggled with the Bulls for 30 of 40 minutes earlier this week, proving that even the bottom-dwellers of the league can compete. The issue is doing it night-in and –out, and it doesn't seem as though USF has the ability to do so now.
Game Info
Sat. Jan. 17
Noon EST

WVU Coliseum
WVU 12-4, 1-2
USF 6-10, 1-3
West Virginia 3-1
Big East Network
Sirius Radio 130
WVU - 21
South Florida - 159

For West Virginia, the game is about continuing to build upon its win over Marshall and take advantage of an easier home foe. It should be able to control the Bulls from outside and in the lane. The defensive worries will be limiting, not stopping, the tandem of Jones and Verdejo. If those two don't carry the team, there is nobody else likely to do so. The Mountaineers must continue to prevent decent passing lanes to open and make the Bulls beat them man-to-man. The talent gap is sufficient, especially in league play, and with South Florida lacking depth in key spots and turning the ball over more than it turns over foes, WVU appears primed for a decent outing if it doesn't relax.

The potential for problems could arise if USF again shoots it well. They lack great numbers on the season, but got it together against the Panthers. If the team catches fire in Morgantown, it could make for a long game if WVU can't match the effort. That's always the case, though, and without a major threat inside, West Virginia will concentrate its defense on the outside and cut down on South Florida's ability to free itself through screens and cuts within offensive sets.


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

USF: Mike Mercer, out for season (right knee ACL tear).


West Virginia has won 21 of 26 home Big East games over the last four seasons. Under Huggins, the Mountaineers are winning by an average of 22.7 points at home. They have won 84 percent of their home games over the last six years.

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WVU is forcing 18 turnovers per game and holding foes to 59 points per game. It has scored 315 bench points; foes have scored 202.

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Butler will try for his 60th double-figure scoring game at West Virginia. He and Ebanks are tied fro the team lead in rebounding with 6.1 per game on average.

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The two programs originally met in December of 1977 in the Big Sun Invitational in St. Petersburg, Fla. USF won 80-71. Huggins was a WVU graduate assistant during that season. Huggins is 15-1 all-time against South Florida as a head coach. He went 14-1 versus the Bulls while at Cincinnati. USF head coach Stan Heath is 1-1 against West Virginia. His Arkansas team beat WVU in the finals of the 2006 Old Spice Classic. That game was one day after USF's football team upset the Mountaineers in Morgantown to deny the team a BCS berth.

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