SCOUTING THE BEARCATS
Cincinnati, with an even record in the Big East, has defended its home court well. The Bearcats are 12-4 at Fifth Third Arena, and are 4-3 in the league under head coach Mick Cronin, the second mentor to take over the program since Huggins was forced out despite being much-loved by the UC fan base and players. Now Huggins, who amassed 399 wins while at the Ohio school, returns to play the program he vaulted to another level in 16 seasons. Getting a win is probable, but not an easy task with guard Deonta Vaughn (6-1, 190 lbs.) and forward Mike Williams (6-7, 240 lbs.) The duo combine for more than 25 points per game, with Vaughn hitting for 15.5 to Williams' 9.9. The point player sees more than 37 minutes per contest in conference action, and though he isn't a great distributor or shooter, he is a tough, physical competitor who thrives on contact. His 128-91 assist-to-turnover ratio is average, and the 38.7 percent shooting from the field won't impress. But he makes solid plays most of the time, and will give solid effort in all phases. Williams' game is inside, where he has made 50.8 percent of his shots (he has taken just one three all year). The senior gets six boards per game, and he is equally adept on both ends. WVU can't simply foul away, either, as Williams makes 79 percent from the stripe. The idea will be to contain the brawler, and keep him out and away from the rim.
Fellow forward Rashad Bishop (6-6, 220 lbs.) will step outside more often, but is hitting a paltry 27.5 percent from three to 40 percent overall. He won't threaten with his jumper or from the line (45 percent), but he can handle the ball and passes well for a big man. This is a player who sets others up for plays, not one that often makes them himself. Center Steve Toyloy (6-8, 255 lbs.) is a strong, burly body that, frankly, hasn't fully developed his game. He shoots well from close, but isn't productive enough in his minutes. His four rebounds per game aren't enough – though this year he has played an average of just 16 minutes per game with 11 starts – and he needs to be getting second chances for a team leaning toward the smallish side. Off guard Larry Davis (6-3, 195 lbs.) averages seven points and 1.6 boards per game, and is a serviceable shooter. He can hit from anywhere, but isn't a spot-up guy like Alex Ruoff. He has good numbers across the stat lines, and he hurt WVU in his short appearance last year has a freshman, scoring five points in six minutes.
Cronin's bench isn't long, as guard Cashmere Wright (knee, out for season) and forward Kenny Belton (Back, out indefinitely) aren't available. Freshman forward Yancy Gates (6-9, 225 lbs.) has stated 15 games as a rookie and is averaging 10 points per game while shooting 49 percent. One of the best off-the-bench weapons in the Big East, the Cincinnati native is a very good offensive rebounder, and he's pulling down six boards per contest. This is a rising talent, and one of which the Mountaineers must be aware when he enters. Look for Gates to play about 22 minutes. Backup guard Dion Dixon (6-3, 180 lbs.) will crank from the outside, but isn't a superb shooter. He's adequate from the line, though, and he'll draw enough fouls to cause minor issues. He also hits the boards hard, and has that Chicago-native swagger, even as a newcomer.
Cincinnati and West Virginia are near mirror images. Neither have deep benches, yet both play physical, tough basketball, rebound above their physical likelihoods and have enough shooting ability to be dangerous. There won't be a Bearcat to match Ruoff from deep, but there won't be a Mountaineer who can muscle up like Williams, even after he came off a season-ending knee injury last year. This could come down to WVU's shooting and ability to create of the bounce and find others (a Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks special) against UC's power and excellence on the glass and in finishing inside. Huggins is being honored before the game for his accomplishments, but other than that, it won't be pretty. These are a pair of squads who win ugly.
|Thurs. Feb. 26
7 p.m. EST
Fifth Third Arena
WVU 19-8, 8-6
Cincinnati 17-10, 7-7
WVU - 14
Cincinnati - 55
RealTimeRPI.com, which has West Virginia rated 14th, projects this game to be the closest of any for the rest of the regular season. The site has WVU as a two-point winner. And it's likely that fans would take that. UC has been able to pull out close games in this series in the past, and the antics of Cronin during one meeting in which he stormed across the entire floor and complained – without drawing a technical – hasn't endeared him to Mountain State supporters. Look for brutal inside play and some holding and banging during offensive sets. West Virginia needs to shoot adequately and attack the glass. If it can outrebound and outshoot the ‘Cats, there is very little statistically to show that Cincinnati can win. This is a difficult task, especially on the road. But as Huggins likes to say, if I have to play someone – he usually uses the word ‘lose' – I might as well play someone I like. It will be a treat much deserved for a guy who has well divided and spent his time on both sides of the Ohio River.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
Cincinnati: Cashmere Wright, out (knee – will miss rest of season). Kenny Belton, out (back).
West Virginia's Alex Ruoff grew up in Cincinnati before moving to Florida. He was a Huggins fan even before the coach came to WVU.
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Ruoff was named the Big East Weekly Honor Roll. He is 12 three-pointers shy of breaking the all-time WVU mark held by Kevin Pittsnogle (253). The senior scored 21 points in his last game against UC.
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The Mountaineers are 14-0 this year when scoring more than 70 points. One more win would give WVU 20 wins for a fifth straight year. Huggins has 22 20-win seasons as a head coach.
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Cincinnati has lost two in a row. Cronin is 41-48 in two-plus years at the school.