West Virginia's defensive schemes have had a singular focus since the Jan. 1 game at Purdue – slow down a star player. Against Rutgers, it was Mike Rosario. At Notre Dame, Luke Harangody, and on the road trip to USF, it was Dominique Jones. WVU had varying levels of success on those assignments, and its no surprise that the Mountaineers played the best in the game in which it did the best job of limiting its primary foe.
In the 82-56 win over Rutgers, the Mountaineers limited Rosario to just four field goals on 14 attempts. Rosario scored just 11 points in 30 minutes, despite getting off 14 shots from the field. As a result, WVU cruised to an easy win.
Hitting the road for Notre Dame, WVU played a first half defensive game that Huggins couldn't find a description for. The Mountaineers didn't cover Harangody at all in the first half, and he ran wild as the Irish jumped out to a 20-point halftime lead. In the end, the All-America candidate scored 24 points on 9-15 shooting and had a key hoop down the stretch as Notre Dame held on for a 70-68 win.
If you aren't sensing the pattern yet, it continued against USF. West Virginia allowed 19 first half points to Jones, but in the second half clamped down on him enough to allow the Mountaineers to win going away. It wasn't easy, however, as those first half defensive deficiencies put WVU in another double-digit deficit situation before it could rally.
If West Virginia gets in a similar situation against the Orange, a rally won't be so easy. Jim Boeheim's club has weapons that it can employ from more that one spot on the court.
"They are very versatile," Rutgers head coach Fred Hill, who dropped a decision to the Orange on Wednesday, assessed. "They can throw it inside or shoot from the perimeter. Certainly everyone knows about Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson, but Brandon Triche did well too. They have that combination that makes them good. There's not just one thing you can take away. You have to guard all five guys on the floor."
The numbers bear Hill out. Six ‘Cuse players average 9.6 points per game or better, and two more average 8.6 and 6.9, respectively. All of that means that West Virginia's defense, which has been spotty at best, will be hard pressed to play its most disciplined defensive game of the year. That doesn't mean WVU won't pressure Syracuse in the half court or discard its aggressive style, but the Mountaineers will have to be aware of the multiple scoring threats on the court at all times.
One other tactic WVU will have to defend against is the backside lob. Syracuse excels at throwing the ball over the defense to a player coming off a back screen. When executed successfully, a dunk is the usual result. WVU, which gave up several back cuts for lay-ups in its previous two games, must make sure it keeps track of players on the back side of the set in order to prevent these easy hoops.