SCOUTING THE FRIARS
This is the most experience Providence team in years. Unfortunately, with a lack of great recruiting classes and a penchant for continually finishing in the lower half of the Big East, that translates to little more than a 14-8 mark with four loses in 10 league games. And before one notes that the record is far better than West Virginia's 4-5 mark, note that the Friars have feasted on St. John's, DePaul, Cincinnati (twice) and Seton Hall in addition to a win over Syracuse. All but the Orange are in the league's bottom half, with DePaul and UC being among the worst teams in the league. A victory here is essential to any chance at building momentum into the closing stretch, and a loss to an inferior foe on a home floor could spell disaster with key home games against Villanova and Notre Dame looming.
New head coach Keno Davis, who came to PC from Drake, starts four seniors and a junior, and has some abilities inside with forward Geoff McDermott and center Jonathan Kale. McDermott, the long-time go-to player for Providence, is averaging 8.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. The 22-year old has started all 89 of his career games and will be considered among the finer players in recent history for the school. McDermott passes well, showcases solid inside moves and a nice jumper and plays hard on both ends of the floor. But, simply, he hasn't had a lot of help over the years. It's been a one- or, at best, two-man show, and the 6-8, 235-pounder is still vying to reach his first NCAA Tournament. Kale, 6-8, 245 pounds, is among the team leaders at 10 points per game. He has no outside game and, like McDermott, is missing almost half his free throws, meaning WVU shouldn't hesitate to intelligently hack away. Kale can play on the inside, though, and has a decent assortment of drop steps and ways to get to the rim, where he usually converts. The "swingman" is 6-5, 210 pound guard Weyinmi Efejuku. The team leader in points per game at 13.5, Efejuku has quick hands and the ability to get past a defender and to the glass. The senior is shooting 45 percent (36.5 3pt.%) and has 33 steals. An adequate rebounder, he is a player the Mountaineers will have to keep off the boards.
Point guard Sharaud Curry, 5-10, 170 pounds, is playing a team-high 32-plus minutes per contest in the Big East. The lone junior starter, Curry is a former all-league rookie averaging 11 points and two rebounds. With an excellent 105 assists to just 43 turnovers (with an even better ratio in conference play), he won't make many mistakes. This isn't a player who can handle a game by himself, but he's also not going to beat Providence. Shooting guard Jeff Xavier, 6-1, 185 pounds, is nearing 10 points per game on average. The Rhode Island native, who played for two years at Manhattan before transferring, is making just 37.3 percent of his shots from the floor, including 30 percent from three-point range. Though listed as the off-guard, Xavier and Curry's shot totals are very similar, and it's more likely for the former to ease off the throttle and play conservative than the latter. He's not a great rebounder or defender, and this is a match-up within which West Virginia should have an edge.
The main reserves are sixth-man Marshon Brooks, Randall Hanke and Brian McKenzie. Brooks, a 6-5, 190-pound combo player, is seeing 22 minutes a game and thriving off the bench. He's hitting 46 percent from the floor and averaging 12.3 points. He is also a decent defensive presence in the lane and can handle opposing offensive players. McKenzie, a Brooklyn-based guard, started seven games this season before his shot began to betray him. At 6-4, 205 pounds, the junior might have the most physically developed body on the roster. But he's making just 33 percent from the field, is a horrific three-point shooter and often goes stretches where his offense hurts Providence more than his defense helps. Still, he plays 20 minutes per game and needs to be on WVU's radar. Hanke, 6-11, 240 pounds, could cause a match-up issue because of his size. He hits nearly everything in the paint and is solid at the line – an area the two starting frontcourt players can't equal. Hanke scored 18 points in 14 minutes against WVU last year and had a team-high 14 points against the Mountaineers in 2006, when he led the nation in field goal percentage (67.7 percent). With his talent and size, he could be a nightmare if West Virginia gets into foul trouble or begins to slap at him rather than work for a full defensive possession.
The starting line-up figures to be manageable for head coach Bob Huggins' team. But with Hanke and Brooks coming off the bench and WVU having little answer in that category, a physical, low-scoring game could prove more difficult than anticipated - though that's likely what WVU will play toward. The height and skill level of the teams are similar, with the Mountaineers holding an advantage in overall talent. Providence is, once again, a lower-level Big East team that might not even finish in the top half once it plays out the schedule. But it has enough in the tank to come into Morgantown and win, and with West Virginia's confidence shaken, if not reeling, after a flat and lackadaisical game at Syracuse, the Friars are likely looking at this game as one it could steal on the road to continue trying to make an NCAA Tournament case.
|Sat. Feb. 7
4 p.m. EST
WVU 15-7, 4-5
Providence 14-8, 6-4
West Virginia 13-11
Big East Network
WVU - 18
Providence - 64
PC has an RPI rating of 64th, and hasn't played anywhere near as strong a schedule as that of West Virginia – which rated eighth in that aspect in the latest RealTimeRPI.com rankings. The 14 wins have been built on little of quality, and this is a game the Mountaineers should get. But they need to find that edge to their game, that physicality that transforms into great offensive production because of the spark caused by working through plays and relentless attacking. That has lacked in recent games, causing a minor skid and losses in three of four. This contest is more about the Mountaineers than Providence; can they find that cohesiveness which blended with a hard-nosed style and some overall talent? If that's rediscovered, there's little reason WVU can emerge with a needed win. If it's not, there's little reason it shouldn't lose. West Virginia experienced a similar slide at about this point last season before finding a go-to player in Joe Alexander. The setup is here again.
In terms of basic stats and playing styles, Providence wants to run, to get up and down and create scoring chances. West Virginia plays notably slower, and limits opponent scoring and field goal percentage. The Friars are last in the league in defensive field goal percentage and have allowed mutiple teams to score 80- and 90-plus points this season. The Mountaineer defense must be ready to defend the entire floor, including deep behind the arc and in transition. If West Virginia wants to base its existence on defense, here's a game in which to show it. Anything flirting with the winner having 80-plus points (sans overtime), and WVU will be looking up at Providence in the standings. It's time for the Mountaineers to prove their mettle.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
Da'Sean Butler can become the first Mountaineer in 37 years to score 20 points in seven consecutive games if he can reach that mark against Providence. The junior is averaging 21 points per game in league playing – fourth-highest in the conference – including 27, 27, 21, 21, 23 and 23 in his last six games. Will Robinson was the last WVU player to score 20 or more points in seven consecutive games, that feat coming in 1972.
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WVU has won four in a row over the Friars and eight of the last nine in the series. That's the most dominant stretch against any Big East team outside of West Virginia's 10-game winning streak over St. John's.
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The game is sold out, marking the fifth such occurrence this season for West Virginia. The Mountaineers sold 7,000-plus season tickets, the most in school history.
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If WVU wins, Huggins will have 21 home victories and 21 road decisions in his Mountaineer coaching career. West Virginia is 23-6 in Big East home games in the last four years. It is 50-7 overall at the facility in the same time span.
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Providence is 2-3 on the road this season. Under first-year head coach Keno Davis, who came to PC from Drake, the Friars are 14-8 overall and 6-4 in the Big East. Davis is a 1995 Iowa graduate who went 28-5 at Drake last year.