UPDATING THE BEARCATS
Since its Feb. 27 loss at West Virginia, Cincinnati finished the regular season by dropping games to Villanova and Georgetown. It has rebounded well in the Big East Tournament, knocking off Rutgers in the opening round and Louisville last night by a combined four points. The Bearcats aren't playing particularly impressively, especially on offense where it seems they mostly throw the ball at the rim, then use their bulk and size to get putback chances. UC point guard Deonta Vaughn (6-1, 10 lbs.) challenges the rim well, and likes to get into the lanes to draw fouls or kick for open looks. But with a team shooting just 29 percent from three-point range, WVU will look to pack in the middle and force attempts away from the rim. The issue will be the same for both teams: rebounding. This is the strongest facet of play for both, and whoever controls the glass controls the game. This will be a bigger issue for UC because of its shooting woes, but like in the first matchup, look for Vaughn to bully Truck Bryant or Joe Mazzulla as much as he can, pressuring the rim and forcing action to the interior. Vaughn averages 12 points in conference play, and his shooting numbers are a bit better there as well at 40 percent, 35 from three. He isn't a great passing guard, though, and looks to get his first. He doesn't get a lot of scoring punch from freshman two-man Jaquon Parker (6-3, 210 lbs.) at four points per game. But, for his size, Parker rebounds well and has a decent midrange jumper. The other backcourt threat is Lance Stephenson (6-5, 210 lbs.), the team's scoring leader at 12 points per game. The freshman, a McDonald's All-American, gets to the line well and is a hawk on the boards. His length and toughness make him a difficult defensive assignment, and though he isn't an outside threat, his abilities around the rim and to score in creative ways are exceptional. He uses the rim to guard shots, knows how to manipulate his body in the air and can get into defenders and create fouls. West Virginia needs to intelligently match his physical play and continue to pound on him.
Forwards Ibrahima Thomas (6-11, 230 lbs.) and Yancy Gates (6-9, 260 lbs.) average six and 10 points, respectively, and combine for about 11 rebounds per game. Gates is making more than 50 percent of his shots, where Thomas is into the 30s in percentage from the field. One would think Thomas, at 6-11, would be far less likely to shoot threes. But he has taken 28 this year to Gates' one, as the latter's game is entirely inside. Both have gotten to the line for about 80 shots this year – and both have missed about half. WVU can be liberal with its fouling without risk of giving up many points based on past performances, but it must not allow itself to get into foul trouble and lessen what's expected to be a significant advantage in depth and freshness. Both players like to challenge inside, and will try to get points close to the rim. If it reads like a repeat, it's because it is. This is UC's game, and one shouldn't expect much else other than drives and slashes to the hoop combined with a few threes as Mick Cronin's crew attacks for shots it can make. The backups, and future of the team, are fashioned in much the same way. Point guard Cashmere Wright (6-0, 175 lbs.) plays 18 minutes and is shooting 37 percent from the floor, 27 from three. He won't hesitate to shoot, as his three point attempts match those of Vaughn despite 10 fewer playing minutes per game. Wright averages five points and a couple rebounds, but doesn't protect the ball as well as Vaughn. There are opportunities for turnovers when the redshirt freshman is inserted. Fellow guard Larry Davis (6-3, 190 lbs.) is struggling badly with his shooting at 29 percent, and he is much less apt to draw contact or try to get to the rim. This is a shooter who isn't, but Cronin, because of a lack of depth, has continued to play him 12 minutes per game against conference opponents. The staff may be anticipating he will regain the touch that allowed him to finish in the top 15 in three-point percentage in the Big East last year. Darnell Wilks (6-7, 205 lbs.) is the primary frontcourt reserve, but only play eight to nine minutes a game. The junior averages three points and two rebounds, but he is a better shooter than most and can hit from outside. Though listed as a forward, his game orients to the wings and beyond the arc as often as not. Somewhat because of that, he doesn't get to the line and isn't a major force on the glass. The Mountaineers must be aware of his location, though, and his shot needs challenged from all over the floor.
|Thurs. March 11
9 p.m. EST
Madison Square Garden
WVU 24-6, 13-5
UC 17-14, 8-11
|Sirius Channel: 91|
WVU – 5
UC – 63
Cincinnati is playing its third game in as many days. The Mountaineers are fresh, coming of four days rest. But with any layoff, players are sometimes lackadaisical to start contests, or cannot find the shooting touch. That, combined with UC's momentum, could be cause for a difficult opening period. But all those factors combined rarely last through a full 40 minutes, and it would appear this is a good match-up for West Virginia. The Bearcats lived on the offensive glass against Louisville, often throwing up inaccurate shots from outside, then going and getting it. Those rebounds should be much more difficult to come by against WVU, as long as the Mountaineers stay physical, get a body on all players and block out well. There's no questioning Cincinnati's toughness, but outside of its decent guard play and size, there isn't much true talent there. The skill level of shooting and scoring outside can't match West Virginia, and it would appear the higher seed would have edges in free throw shooting, individual ability and continual defensive tenacity. This game is often a struggle for Bob Huggins' teams, but being rested along with facing a foe playing a third straight game would seem to give WVU a major edge. This one should begin tilting toward the Mountaineers by the midpoint mark or shortly thereafter. It isn't likely to be easy, however – and as Cronin noted after beating UofL, the Bearcats will "go for another one-point blowout against West Virginia."
WVU has won 13 of its last 19 games at Madison Square Garden and eight of its last 13 Big East Tournament games.
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West Virginia will reach the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons. The year the Mountaineers didn't make the NCAAs, they won the NIT – accounting for a pair of MSG victories.
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Huggins enters the game with 663 career wins. He needs one more victory to tie John Wooden for 21st place all-time in NCAA wins. West Virginia's 24 wins match the school record set in 1982 and matched in '89. The Mountaineers have 13 road wins, a school record.
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With the win at Villanova, Da'Sean Butler has now been a part of more wins (100) than any other WVU player in history. He bested Darris Nichols' mark of 99.