Preview: West Virginia - Louisville

West Virginia's assured of a first round Big East Tournament bye and a bid to the NCAAs. The question now is seeding, and planting a loss on Louisville would significantly aid that effort.

UPDATING THE CARDINALS

Louisville showed both dominance and the ability to be handled in the last meeting with the Mountaineers. The Cards (24-5, 15-2) are 7-2 since, including six consecutive wins down the stretch – four of which came at Freedom Hall. Now UofL goes on the road for a College Gameday contest inside the Coliseum for by far its most difficult road task in the final dozen games. WVU isn't rock solid, but it found a way past Louisville's full court pressure to play a solid second half in the teams' first meeting this year, and should be expected to do the same in this contest. UofL, led by shooting guard Jerry Smith (6-1, 200 lbs.) and swingman Terrence Williams (6-6, 215 lbs.) in the last series match-up, will try to run past the host school utilizing its uptempo, fast break offense and defensive strategies that push teams to shoot quickly. Smith, a dependable, experienced shooter and ballhander, has maintained his positive assist-to-turnover ratio while converting 46 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. He excels at getting others involved more than scoring himself (7.3 ppg average), and will be a key to the tempo of the game. West Virginia's defenders must slow the junior, and keep his opportunities for the drive-and-dish minimal.

Williams, second among three starters averaging double figure scoring at 12.6 points per game, was the main catalyst for UofL in the first game this season. He hit for 20 points, by far the most on the team, and generally caused major match-up issues inside in terms of athleticism. The likely All-Big East pick can shoot from anywhere, and his dominance on the defensive boards (206 this season) is rivaled by few in the league. His 8.6 rebounds per game and assist-to-turnover ratio (145 to 68) are the stats of a player willing to do assumed lesser things for victories. If West Virginia gets beat on the boards, this will be the main reason why. Fellow forward Earl Clark (6-9, 220 lbs.) and Samardo Samuels (6-8, 240 lbs.) both average at least 12 points per game, with Clark nearing a double-double at nine rebounds. The junior didn't play exceptionally in the initial contest, but his ability to finish and defensive presence inside hurt WVU. Clark isn't a threat from deep, nor does he convert from the line well. If the Mountaineers can move him out of the paint and limit touches each possession, it'll go a long way toward a Senior Day win. Samuels, among the hottest freshman in the Big East, is entirely and inside player. He has yet to take a three on the year, but his 58.2 percent shooting is phenomenal. He doesn't rebound it well, and his turnover numbers showcase his experience level, but few others can match his potential and athletic ability.

Point guard Andre McGee (5-10, 180) doesn't scare with his initial stats at 5.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. But the senior has seen everything that can be at the collegiate level, and makes Smith significantly better. Expected to start his 10th game of the season against West Virginia, the California native could be called lacking in overall shooting, and he isn't among the flashier point players. But head coach Rick Pitino is relying on his steadiness and ability to understand the game situations and get the team to react accordingly. Backups Preston Knowles (6-1, 170 lbs.) and Terrence Jennings (6-10, 225 lbs.) are the key reserves at guard and forward, respectively. Knowles can score from all over the floor and is making 46 percent from inside and outside the arc. He doesn't draw contact or pass well, though, and is used to settling for midrange attempts. He makes enough where defending that is a must, however. Jennings, a freshman, is hitting 56 percent from the field, and he will work all over the floor. His 40 blocks are the second-most on the team (Clark, 43) behind a player seeing far more time. His length and wingspan are great, and he'll use that to hurt the smaller Mountaineer lineup. This is another case where leverage and movement away from the hoop while the shot is in the air loom large.

Pitino can go deeper as needed, as evidenced by Jared Swopshire (6-7, 215 lbs.), a forward who has played in all 29 games for an average of almost six minutes per. He's hitting for 1.4 points and 1.3 boards at a clip, and as a freshman is being used for minutes more than anything else. Guard Edgar Sosa (6-1, 175 lbs.), who started but failed to play well against WVU in the first game, is listed as a reserve. Sosa scored nine points and grabbed two rebounds in 15 minutes versus the Mountaineers, but his match-up is one that isn't as favorable – as judged by Pitino – as that of others in this outing. Three other players have seen action in at least 18 games, though none average more than seven minutes or are likely to gain major time in the regular season finale' for both teams.

OUTLOOK

The build-up is significant, and the results could match if West Virginia can win. The Mountaineers are assured of at least a seventh place finish in the Big East, marking the seventh time in as many years in which the team has exceeded preseason polls. A win would lock them into sixth place with a Syracuse loss, and even a defeat leaves WVU with a first-round conference tournament bye. If head coach Bob Huggins' squad can rebound well and not allow itself to be drawn into an uptempo, run-and-gun style as it was in the first half of the game at Freedom Hall, it has a shot. This is likely Pitino's best Louisville team, but it has weaknesses, and facing a solid team on Senior Night in a College Gameday atmosphere where students have camped outside the Coliseum immediately following the last home game is arguably its toughest away task of the year. The Cards are 7-1 in league road play, and are better than they were in the initial tussle; so are the Mountaineers.

BlueGoldNews.com
Game Info
Sat. March. 7
9 p.m. EST

WVU Coliseum
Records
WVU 21-9, 10-7
Louisville 24-5, 15-2
Series
Louisville 6-2
TV
ESPN
Sirius 127
RPI
WVU - 22
Louisville - 16

The home team is more mentally fragile, though, and must rely on its defense to spur offense. WVU didn't so much force Louisville into bad shots or cut down on percentage. The difference was the amount of chances, the tempo of the game. West Virginia doesn't have enough horses or enough experience to play at another's preferred pace. It must keep the game into the 60s, and wishfully the 50s, to be at maximum efficiency against top foes. The idea will be to get great shot selection, be patient on offense and physical and intelligent on defense. Movement away from the ball in both areas is major, and not allowing point bursts is a key. The continued hot shooting of Alex Ruoff, who hit six threes against DePaul and is one away from setting the school record, is significant as well. The depth, experience and raw ability checkmarks go to Louisville. West Virginia must win all else: intangibles, hustle, tempo and, ultimately, desire and execution. There's little doubt it will play hard. The question is if it can play physically and play smart without lapse for a full 40 or more minutes. Everybody – the fans, the Mountaineers and Pitino and the Cards included – knows the Xs and Os and what must be done. It's a matter of doing it.

INJURY REPORT

WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).

Louisville: None.

FAST BREAKS

Lone senior Alex Ruoff will be honored before the game. He is one three-pointer shy of breaking Kevin Pittsnogle's mark for the all-time school record at 253. Senior team manager Adam White and senior trainer Takeshi Kojima will also be recognized.

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This is the first visit by ESPN Gameday to Morgantown for either football or basketball. It is the regular season finale' for the show. Students have been camped outside the Coliseum since the last home game on Wednesday.

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WVU's 1959 NCAA Finals team will be honored at halftime. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the squad. Led by Jerry West, the Mountaineers reached the finals before losing to California 71-70. West Virginia defeated Louisville at Freedom Hall in the semifinals that year as West scored 38 points.

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West Virginia is 15-0 when scoring more than 70 points this season.

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This will be the Mountaineers' 11th game this season against a ranked foe. Just three of those have come at home. WVU is 54-7 at the Coliseum in the last four years. Its average margin of victory there under Huggins has been more than 20 points.

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Louisville is 8-4 away from home this year, including 7-1 in true road games. This is the ninth series meeting, with UofL winning six. It lost its last game in Morgantown, 68-64 on Feb. 25, 2006. This is just the program's third-ever game in Morgantown.

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WVU head coach Bob Huggins needs one win to take sole possession of 25th place on the all-time NCAA winningest men's basketball head coaching list. His 637 wins tie him with Marv Harshman. Huggins needs four wins to tie for 24th place. He is 14-13 all-time against UofL.


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