SCOUTING THE BEARCATS
Cincinnati, winners of two straight against West Virginia, are trying to make it three in a row to reach .500 in Big East play and remain viable for an NCAA Tournament bid. WVU, losers of three of five, needs to halt a skid of lackadaisical recent performances and showcase some trademark toughness against a bruising team. Neither team will find this easy. UC has dominated the Mountaineers of late with more toughness and increasingly physical play. More of the same will come in this game, as again the Mick Cronin-led Bearcats are long on muscle with improved guard play. The backcourt tandem of Deonta Vaughn and Lace Stephenson averages a combined 23 points and 8.5 rebounds and plays by far the most minutes on the team. Vaughn (6-1, 190 lbs.) has a slasher's mentality, attacking the rim first and looking to score more than purely distribute. The senior is shooting decently at 40 percent from the field, and he will take open threes, but the outside part of his game is the weakest. Strong through the legs and trunk, Vaughn gets into defenders to force the action and open kickouts. He ranked eight in the league in assists last season, and has 94 this year against 61 turnovers – meaning his bulldog, force-the-action approach isn't as reckless as it appears. This should be the most physical of Truck Bryant's match-ups, and watching Vaughn and Joe Mazzulla hound each other will be enjoyable and maddening at times. Stephenson (6-5, 210 lbs.) is a more effective scorer even as a freshman. The Brooklyn native is hitting 46 percent from the field, but his outside shooting (19.3 percent) has hurt the ‘Cats at times though he isn't often forcing it. A McDonald's All-American, Stephenson has great length and solid strength for a newcomer, and his rebounding ability is very good. WVU must get a body on him and be aware of his location, as his offensive rebounding numbers are second on the team. He will turn the ball over some, and his defensive intensity – like most freshman – lapses at times. Look to see if, in man sets, Cronin decides to guard Da'Sean Butler with Stephenson. The newcomer isn't the best on-ball defender, and Butler's array of moves and quick fire ability from three would be a tough match. Instead, that honor could go to Rashad Bishop (6-6, 225 lbs.). The junior has a bit more height, and his strength and weight are a better match. The issue would be quickness, but Butler's skillset isn't as much blowing past people as finding creative ways to score when in the lane. Bishop's offensive game is extends beyond the arc, but his primary scoring areas are within the midrange jumper and in range. He is making more than half his shots, but is about the same at the foul line – not atypical of a Cronin-coached squad. Prolific on the glass, Bishop also passes decently and will involve teammates. He isn't a top shelf defender, but could be Cincinnati's best fit for WVU's main weapon.
The other two starters add some trademark bulk to UC's inside presence. Forward Ibrahima Thomas (6-11, 230 lbs.) is an Oklahoma State transfer who hits for six points and five boards a game. His length is obviously the attraction here, as he is a bit lanky even at 230 pounds, and he doesn't have the touch around the rim of a Deniz Kilicli. He has missed 63 of 99 shots and his rebounding numbers are pretty average. He gets to the line decently, but is making less than 60 percent from there. This is a player who needs development and to refine his shooting, but one that adds some value with shot-changing ability and pesky length. Center Steve Toyloy (6-8, 255 lbs.), four points and four rebounds, will make his 15th start of the season. Cronin has toyed with his lineup throughout the year, and at times opposing match-ups and recent play have dictated starters. Toyloy sees about 18 minutes per game and scores well around the rim in limited chances. The senior has good length and bulk and has very good athleticism with a vertical jump of better than 30 inches. If he gets the ball around the low block, either pass or rebound, odds are he'll shoot it. But WVU can – intelligently – hack away here; Toyloy has missed more than half his free throws, and his college game is still developing after he spent a pair of seasons at Miami Dade Community College. This is a big body with good raw ability, but, again, needs to be honed offensively. There's a pattern here with players, and it is one the Mountaineers have struggled with in the past few seasons. Cincinnati runs bodies at you, and will throw it up from outside the lane and simply go get it, or bull into the paint and try shorter attempts. It isn't pretty, and truly has not been that effective overall. But it has worked against West Virginia.
|Sat. Feb. 27
2 p.m. EST
WVU 21-6, 10-5
UC 16-11, 7-8
Big East Network
|Sirius Channel: 122|
WVU – 5
UC – 59
The backups include a trio of guards, two of which that can play either slot. Dion Dixon (6-3, 195 lbs.) and Cashmere Wright (6-0, 175 lbs.) are both more in the point guard fashion, though Dixon, especially, likes to jack a lot of shots though he is making just 38 percent, and below 30 percent from three. He has played about 15 minutes per game in conference play, three less than in the nonconference portion, and his shooting numbers are even worse at less than 30 percent overall versus Big East teams. He averages just 3.4 points in conference, though he does have a near even assist-to-turnover ratio. He needs another year of play, but his quickness and solid defensive play allow Cronin to use him some. Wright, a redshirt freshman, sees 16 minutes per game and is a much better shooter and scorer. He has really elevated his play of late, and is nearing 48 percent from the floor against Big East teams. He has a good outside jumper and his 49 assists versus 35 turnovers combined with his passing makes him a steady reserve. With similar size, Larry Davis (6-3, 195 lbs.) typically mans the shooting guard slot. Davis plays 11 minutes, doesn't shoot well and has not really been able to involve others as well as the staff would like. He has taken more than half his looks from three-point range, and he doesn't like to drive or draw contact as much as the other two, as evidenced by his nine total free throws this year. Swingman Darnell Wilks (6-7, 205 lbs.) is on the floor only about eight minutes per game, but converts very well from the interior and has enough of an outside jumper that he must be guarded. He doesn't challenge the rim much, but can rebound and thus the Mountaineers need to get a body on him. Yancy Gates (6-9, 260 lbs.), the final reserve at forward, has very good size and strength, and his frame often knocks foes off the ball. The best of the reserves, Gates plays 25 minutes and is averaging 10 points and six rebounds. The sophomore, a native of Cincinnati, was a Big East All-Rookie pick last year, and a big part of that was his 22-point, 11-rebound game against West Virginia. He made nine of 11 shots in that game, and he has again hit well from the inside at 56.3 percent. He has shot just one three, and his game is attacking the rim and glass, the latter especially on defense. A tenacious rebounder and a talented offensive player, Gates leads the team in offensive and defensive rebounding. He more often uses brute force to get to the bucket, but has a decent array of shot options as well. This is the primary bench player that most concerns WVU head coach Bob Huggins in his bid to beat the Bearcats after two consecutive losses.
This, like the contest at Connecticut, will be a physical affair. And good shooting percentages from both teams have been hard to come by this season. This will be another tough game in which West Virginia has more skill and talent, but could be hampered by the foe's physicality and raw athleticism. Cincinnati's guards don't penetrate or break down defenses as well as UConn's, but they do get into opposing guards and attack the rim. And while the Bearcats also don't score as well from the perimeter as most of the teams that have bested WVU, they have enough ballhandling, slashers, good interior scoring and defensive ability to upset the home team. The Mountaineers must rebound on both ends, play a solid game defensively sans repeated breakdowns and manage the contest more effectively than they have in recent outings. West Virginia has struggled in this match-up over the last few years because they were unable to muster the muscle needed. This, again, looks a bit shorthanded, but the talent gap and shooting ability – if the shots fall and WVU doesn't settle – should be enough to offset it. Miss a ton of free throws, don't challenge physically and have lapses on both ends for extended periods and a third loss in as many games to a lesser program is very possible.
West Virginia is looking for its 444th win at the Coliseum. It is 64-10 at the facility over the last five seasons, 34-7 under Huggins.
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Huggins is just the second coach in school history to win 20 games in each of his first three seasons at WVU (George King, 1961-63). His next win will give him the school coaching record for most wins in the first three seasons.
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West Virginia has won 21 consecutive home games against unranked foes.
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The Mountaineers are 55-2 under Huggins when outshooting foes.
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Cincinnati is 2-7 in road games this year, 2-5 in the Big East. WVU is just 2-4 versus Cincinnati since the Bearcats joined the Big East. Mick Cronin is 3-1 against WVU; Huggins is 0-2 against UC.