SCOUTING THE BULLS
Never before have both teams met when ranked in the top 10. Never before has the WVU Coliseum hosted a Mountaineer game involving a pair of top 10 teams. And never before have the teams clashed in the de facto game of the weekend, televised on ESPN. It doesn't get much bigger than this in Morgantown, with the students in, the full focus on basketball and two of the top four winningest active coaches meeting in Bob Huggins and Jim Boeheim. It reads like a game intro, and one with multiple similarities. But the biggest decider in this game, like most, will be the differences. Syracuse has played well for weeks. West Virginia has played well for halves. The Orange will roll out a 2-3 zone, the set with which the Mountaineers have struggled the most. WVU counters with multiple looks on both ends, but thus far the inability to piece a total performance together. That will have to change if the home team has a chance in this one. Defensively, the Orange are paced by a trio of players led by Wes Johnson (6-7, 205 lbs.). The forward has amassed 33 blocks and 31 steals and is a monster on the defensive boards with 110 of his 153 total rebounds. The junior, among the finest all-around players in the Big East, hits for a team-leading 17 points and nine rebounds per game and has an excellent shot from all over at 55 percent from the floor and 46 percent (25 of 55) from three-point range. This is arguably the single most difficult player to handle on both ends for West Virginia, as his strength, skill and athleticism are all significant and well-balanced. A swingman by position, he can attack the rim, hit from outside and take non-guards off the bounce.
Johnson is aided by four-man Rick Jackson (6-9, 240 lbs.). The junior averages almost 10 points and seven rebounds and is a terrific interior defender with 34 blocks and 21 steals. And unlike Johnson, who has 44 turnovers, Jackson has a close to even assist-to-turnover ratio. He won't challenge from the outside, but is making 59 percent of his shots overall (none from three-point range). He is also a better-balanced rebounder than Johnson, and a solid portion of his points come from clean-ups. Andy Rautins (6-4, 195 lbs.), the team's shooting guard, is an underrated defender. The senior has a team-best 41 steals from getting into passing lanes and making hustle plays, and he is as good as they come at protecting the ball and making intelligent pass-shot choices. He has 94 assists to 42 turnovers, and the outside specialist has buried 41 of 99 treys this far. He won't factor much on the glass, but will pull the Mountaineers away from the bucket and allow Jackson and Johnson lanes and operating room inside. If there's no hand in his face during shots, one might as well put three points on the board. Point guard Brandon Triche (6-4, 198 lbs.) has started 16 of 17 games thus far and gotten the nod over phenom Scoop Jardine (6-2, 190 lbs.) both because of his better shooting and ball handling and because hardin gives a bit of a boost off the bench. Triche is a freshman, though he hasn't performed like it thus far at 10 points, two rebounds and two-plus assists. He's canning 54 and 44 percent, respectively, from the field and outside, while Jardine – who plays about the same number of minutes at 21.8 to 21.2 – is making 50 percent from the floor but at times struggling from beyond the arc. The other starter is Arinze Onuaku (6-9, 261 lbs.), a powerful forward/center who will muscle opposing players out of the lane and get a solid body on anyone during rebounding opportunities. The senior averages 10 points and four rebounds and has made an incredible 67 percent (78 of 116) of his shots. WVU doesn't have a player who can match Onuaku's size-and-strength combo, though Kevin Jones comes closest.
|Sat. Jan. 16
WVU 13-2, 4-1 Big East
SU 16-1, 3-1 Big East
|Sirius Channel: 122|
WVU - 1
SU - 5
This is the most versatile, best shooting and most balanced line-up the Mountaineers have played, or likely will play this season. There are teams with more raw and individual talent, but none that combine the sweet shooting, length, defensive ability and scoring balance (the top six players average at least 10 points and the seven is at nine) of Syracuse. On offense, the Orange are protecting the basketball, using the entire floor for shot selection and distributing touches well between Rautins, Jackson and Johnson while allowing Onuaku to handle rebounding and putbacks inside. On defense, SU packs in the 2-3 defense and forces teams to pry them outside via solid three-point shooting. That has rarely happened, and when it has, the Orange are usually the sharper of the shooting teams. Pittsburgh attacked the zone well, moving the ball around the perimeter to gain a two-on-one advantage where the outside baseline defender must attempt to challenge the shot. That opens cutting lanes from the high post and wing for dump downs on the blocks and can expose the middle of the lane for a second to allow either a close shot or another pass to a player attacking the basket or taking a short, high-percentage jumper. West Virginia must hit a few open threes to get that challenge from the low block defender, then decide to take an intelligent shot from the right player as needed. If the Mountaineers settle, as they have been, for passing the ball around the arc and hoisting up poor percentage shots from the outside, Syracuse will romp. WVU must use ball movement and cuts to open areas of the floor for exploitation. On defense, West Virginia needs to challenge on the outside, but not get itself out of defe4nsive position by getting too far into the passing lanes. Denial, in this one, is far less important on the outside than is maintaining a proper defensive stance to challenge and keep the foe away from the hoop and from driving the lane and kicking or dumping off to big men who can easily finish. There can be no slow start, no playing for the latter 20 or even 25-30 minutes. Shots might not fall and WVU might well trail even by double digits. But it must continue to play and take good shots while keeping composure on defense. The intensity should be there in this one. The question is will the execution, discipline and intelligence?
The only other WVU game played in Morgantown in which two men's collegiate teams ranked in the top 10 met was exactly 50 years ago on Jan. 16, 1960 when No. 3 West Virginia beat No. 9 Villanova 89-81. This game is the 11th in school history in which both WVU and its foe were rated in the top 10.
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Da'Sean Butler is now 9th on the all-time West Virginia scoring list with 1,680. He needs eight points to pass Ron ‘Fritz' Williams for eighth place.
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Huggins is 1-2 against Syracuse and Boeheim all-time. WVU is 30-5 under Huggins in the Coliseum. It has won 27 games in a row when scoring 70 or more points.
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Boeheim is 19-6 against West Virginia, the majority of those defeats coming against former WVU head coach Gale Catlett. WVU's last series win was in 2008 in the first-ever meeting between Huggins and Boeheim. SU has won 75 percent of the series games since the Mountaineers joined the Big East – though West Virginia is 12-9 at home and 7-7 in the Coliseum against the Orange.
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West Virginia passed Princeton for 23rd on the all-time NCAA winningest Division I programs list at 1,563 wins. The Mountaineers are one win behind Cincinnati for 22nd place. Syracuse is fifth all-time in wins (1,765).