UPDATING THE IRISH
Following Da'Sean Butler's game-winner against Cincinnati, WVU draws arguably the hottest team in the Big East in its semifinal game. Notre Dame, perhaps the most balanced Big East attack in point distribution and shots taken, is on a tear after winning six straight. Head coach Mike Brey's recruiting and system are peaking as UND incorporates movement, drives to the lane to free shooters and a one-two frontcourt punch for interior scoring and rebounding ability. Because while Luke Harangody (6-8, 246 lbs.) garners the majority of the headlines, fellow forward Tim Abromatis (6-8, 235 lbs.) has finer touch, better range and more athleticism. Harangody, a three-time all-Big East selection, averages a team-best 22 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He can score from anywhere, though his outside shooting isn't great at 30 percent (24 for 79). His strength and hounding mentality on the glass and driving in the lane makes him a tough chore for any defense, even one as long as West Virginia. The Mountaineers, under both head coach Bon Huggins and former mentor John Beilein, have struggled with Harangody, who has scored more than 24 points in four of his five games against WVU. The better option, as often evidenced by former Mountaineer coach Gale Catlett, is to err on the side of the best player scoring, while limiting some of the other aspects to his game to help control teammate points. West Virginia has fared best not when Harangody is limited in scoring (which, essentially, has happened just once), but when he doesn't get the rebounding and free throw numbers. That limits second chances to score, kickout passes to open teammates and opportunities for contributions from others. Crash the glass hard and get a body on Harangody at a correct angle. His will likely need to be done by a single player, as West Virginia must concern itself, too, with Abromatis and a pair of outside shooters. Abromatis is hitting for 16.6 points and five rebounds while shooting a team-best 50 percent from the field. Of his 352 shots, 181 are from three, giving him a great balance for a forward. He has made 81 threes (45 percent). Considered more of a pure shooter entering this season, the junior has added some scoring touch in the paint and is tied for second on the team behind Harangody at free throws attempted. Like Butler, Abromatis is creative with his scoring, pivoting on a foot and using proper angles to open decent looks. The tradeoff for Brey is that his defensive skills are mediocre, and he will have a tough time defending whoever he is assigned against West Virginia.
The primary backcourt scoring comes from Ben Hansbrough (6-3, 206 lbs.). The senior is a good shooter and finds a way to get to the line. He averages 12 points and four rebounds, and his physicality is underrated. WVU must expect Hansbrough to drive as well as spot-up shoot – a difficulty when he won't hesitate to dump a pass onto the blocks or kick outside for a three. His 147 assists to 60 turnovers reeks of a Brey-coached player, and showcases the responsibility Notre Dame's guards have with the ball. The same is true of point guard Tory Jackson (5-11, 195 lbs.). Another senior, Jackson has 174 assists to 67 turnovers and has seen every potential game situation. He averages 10 points in 37 minutes, the most on the team, and there isn't much West Virginia can throw at the backcourt that it hasn't seen. This isn't an explosive or extremely athletically-gifted duo. But the know how to play, make intelligent decisions and have an array of ways to involve teammates and get open looks. It can be frustrating to play Notre Dame at times because of its efficiency and effectiveness at doing simple things that lead to winning. WVU is more blessed with size, length, depth and raw physical talents, but it lacks some of the touch and finesse that make Notre Dame a tough out.
The other starter, Tyrone Nash (6-8, 232 lbs.) plays 26 minutes a game and is entirely an inside player. He has yet to take a three, but is making 54 percent of his shots (94 of 172),a nd is is the most balanced rebounder on the team. He has a knack for reading the shot well and getting into position for the carom, giving him many putback shots. Brey's issue isn't his first five as much as it is what's after that. Just two players see many minutes off the bench in Carleton Scott (6-7, 217 lbs.) and Jonathan Peoples (6-3, 207 lbs.). Scott averages five points in 18 minutes, but isn't a rebounder and doesn't get to the line. He won't hesitate to shoot from the outside or drive, and he can put the ball on the deck decently. Peoples plays 17 minutes and either guard slot. A team captain, Peoples is better on the defensive end than offensive, and would rather distribute than score. He has settled into his role off the bench, and his ability to play both slots is key in Brey's seven-man rotation. This is a veteran team with five seniors and five juniors against just three freshmen, and this is the time Notre Dame needs to make a run. It will lose the majority of its starters and scoring going into next year, and it appears this is among the better coaching and jell jobs of any Brey team. The Irish have learned to play a more effective team game as the season as progressed, and Harangody's injury could be a disguised blessing. In his absence, UND discovered how to win without him, and that, combined with its experience, veteran leadership, shooting ability, care for the ball and understanding of the game makes this a very difficult contest for West Virginia. The Irish are peaking right now, and though the Mountaineers controlled the second half of the last match-up, taking even five to 10 minutes off in this one could spell elimination.
|Fri. March 12
9 p.m. EST
Madison Square Garden
WVU 25-6, 14-5
ND 23-10, 12-8
|Sirius Channel: 91|
WVU – 5
ND – 54
Notre Dame showcases the ability to hit from outside, use strength on the interior and make intelligent in-game decisions on what to do with the basketball. The assets combine to make the experienced Irish quite a formidable foe – and that was before the team found a groove with Harangody out of the lineup because of injury. His return, it seems, hasn't lessened the contributions of others and, indeed, appears to have upped the leadership and ability to pound inside without taking away from the cohesiveness and finer overall team game developed while the senior was away. There's no secret as to what Notre Dame wants to do. It will utilize the pass to open jumpers from the outside while working Harangody both around the rim and facing the basket. An effective scorer both ways, WVU must choke off the lanes when Harangody gets the ball along the paint and be able to at least limit his effectiveness on the blocks. That doesn't mean limiting his scoring, necessarily, but to keep him from second and third chances. West Virginia also must control the rebounding more in this game than it did in the quarterfinals against Cincinnati, and it would appear it will based upon stats and player size and length. The Mountaineers are not likely to outshoot Notre Dame, and so must limit extra scoring opportunities, limit turnovers and balance guarding the three-point shot with defending the myriad of create Irish scoring while getting into decent rebounding position. The match-up isn't one WVU has yet to see; many teams have a pair of good outside shooters mixed with solid point play and a very good interior threat. Most of those teams caused the Mountaineers more issues than did the UND, but the Irish look to be playing at a much higher level now than when the teams met toward the start of the Big East slate. West Virginia will need better contributions, especially offensively, in this game than it got in a stagnant, slow outing against UC. And that should happen. It seems inevitable, however, that there will be periods of lackadaisical play. The question that has lingered through the season is for how long, and will the Mountaineers be able to overcome such.
WVU has won 14 of its last 20 games at Madison Square Garden and nine of its last 14 Big East Tournament games. The Mountaineers beat Notre Dame in last year's league postseason.
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The Mountaineers have lost 14 of their previous 17 games against Notre Dame. WVU is 1-1 against the Irish in Big East Tournament play. Huggins is 2-2 versus UND while at West Virginia, which reached its third consecutive Big East semifinal.
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Huggins tied John Wooden for 21st place all-time in NCAA wins with 664 in the victory over Cincinnati. West Virginia's 25 wins set a school record for victories in a single season. WVU has 14 road wins, also a school record.
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In five games against West Virginia, Luke Harangody has scored 117 points and tallied 47 rebounds. That's an average of 23.4 points and 9.4 rebounds. The Irish are 3-2 in those games – fairing a bit worse in terms of score when Harangody's rebounding numbers are limited.
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Three games in the WVU-ND series have been played outside of Morgantown or South Bend: two in the Big East Tournament and one, the first in the series, in New Orleans at the Loyola Convention Center in 1969.
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Da'Sean Butler's game-winning three-pointer against the Bearcats gave him 1,972 points in his collegiate career. He needs 28 points to become the third player in West Virginia University history to reach 2,000 or more career points (Jerry West, Rod Hundley).