SCOUTING THE HUSKIES
Connecticut started hot, but has cooled a bit over the last 30 days in losing six of its last nine games. The Huskies are a bit puzzling, struggling at times with both guard- and interior-oriented teams. They have not been tested on the road as much as some other Big East squads, and indeed have played the majority of the upper-level league teams at home with the exception of Pitt and Notre Dame (both road losses).
Their explosiveness and size is quite good, though, and any kind of offense starts with potential All-Big East first-teamer Kemba Walker (6-1, 172 lbs.). The guard averages 22.8 points and a surprising 5.3 rebounds a game. Walker is the lone player with solid experience in a backcourt trio that also has two freshmen, and the junior is among the more difficult match-ups in the league. Walker scores well off the dribble, can hit the mid-range jumper and has made 56 of his team-high 159 threes (35.2 percent). He makes 78 percent at the line, and he has more than double the number of assists as turnovers. His strength allows him to get into the lane and fend off opposing drives, while his quickness and lateral movement are outstanding. West Virginia point guard Joe Mazzulla called Walker the best guard he will face thus far. That written, some help on defense and playing intelligent, physical team basketball will go a long way toward limiting any player. As WVU head coach Bob Huggins noted, you have to be aware of good players, but you can't limit them only and allow others to beat you.
Fellow guards Jeremy Lamb (6-5, 185 lbs.) and Niels Giffey (6-7, 210 lbs.) average 10 and three points, respectively, and have vastly different styles. Lamb, the two guard, makes 47 percent from the field, but has struggled outside the arc. He doesn't get to the line well, but is a very good rebounder at about five per game. West Virginia needs to be aware of him on the offensive glass, but is likely able to relax a bit on the deep three-point shot. Giffey, a Germany native, only plays about 11 minutes. He has a better stroke than Lamb, and though more physical than a typical European player, still shows those shoot-rather-than-drive elements. These aren't significant threats, but role players who, when added to Connecticut's very good depth, can do damage.
The forwards contribute a bit more in total playing time and production. Roscoe Smith (6-8, 205 lbs.) hit for seven points and 5.5 boards in 26 minutes. But the freshman, too, hasn't found his shot at the collegiate level and misses the occasional gimmie. He has taken too many three-pointers (62, making just 19), and is being encouraged to concentrate on what he does well which is rebounding and bullying into the lane and drawing fouls. Smith converts 76 percent at the line, and his 63 offensive rebounds are second-most on the team. He is also very active defensively, and plays far above his experience level on that end. This is a player who could hurt West Virginia if not contained by Cam Thoroughman or, perhaps a better match, John Flowers.
Alex Oriakhi (6-9, 240 lbs.) is UConn's second-best all-around offensive player with 10 points and 8.5 rebounds on average per game. The sophomore is just behind Walker in minutes per game with 30 and has made 111 of 217 shots, all inside the arc. His 100 free throws (he has made 62), to give one an idea of the discrepancy, are second on the team as well – to Walker's 200. By far the best UConn rebounder on both ends, Oriakhi has 107 offensive and 131 defensive rebounds and has a knack for stationing himself well according to the shot. His frame and strength don't hurt, either, and they are a main reason for his 55 blocks. He does turn the ball over, though, and isn't a great passer out of the paint. West Virginia must check him on every rebound it can, and hope that Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli can manage to hold down his scoring and board work in tandem. Oriakhi will play physically, and the Mountaineers should be able to match that aspect. This player is another key: if he rips WVU for 16 to 18 points, that will badly hurt as the interior must help, thereby freeing Walker and the guards.
|Wed. March 2
7 p.m. EST
WVU 18-10, 9-7
UCONN 21-7, 9-7
WVU - 22
UCONN - 19
Connecticut's bench is among the deepest in the nation. The Huskies use 10 players who each average at least 10 minutes per game, the back-ups having an excellent mix of positions and size. Guards Shabazzz Napier (6-0, 170 lbs.) and Donnell Beverly (6-4, 190 lbs.) are a freshman-senior combo which plays 23 and 10 minutes per game, respectively. Napier has made an instant impact on the team, averaging eight points and 2.3 assists while hitting 73 percent from the line. His overall shooting (36 percent) hasn't been as good as hoped, but he handles the ball well, makes good decisions and has excellent quickness on both ends. Napier's 45 steals are second on the team only to Walker. West Virginia's back-up guards don't have near this ability, so look, again, for Huggins to keep Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant on the floor for much of the game while mixing in Casey Mitchell as needed. Beverley hits for two points and is really filler, a player to get some minutes as needed. He has experience, though, and can serve as a de facto floor leader.
The interior is perhaps more impressive. Center Charles Okwandu (7-0, 255 lbs.) is a huge, fairly talented scorer who excels at clogging the lane and blocking shots (39 on the season). He shoots 43 percent, but rarely gets to the line. The senior averages three points and three rebounds, and actually should get some added production in his 15 minutes per game. He can be moved around the paint, though, and often can't handle boards that should be his. Forwards Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (6-7, 210 lbs.) and Tyler Olander (6-9, 255 lbs.) are in their second and first years, respectively, and are playing about 16 and 10 minutes. Coombs-McDaniel isn't a great outside shooter, but he takes a couple threes a game while averaging six points and three rebounds. He will convert at the line; this is a player WVU wants to avoid fouling. Olander's game is all inside, and he hasn't converted well from there (36 percent). This is another minutes-stealer for Calhoun, but one that has some potential in coming seasons.
As gifted as Connecticut is individually and offensively, perhaps the best aspect of its game is the interior defense. The Huskies have the height and length to cause scoring problems for West Virginia. The starting line-up is youth-oriented, however, and has had trouble playing a full 40 minutes at times. WVU requires decent outside shooting from Casey Mitchell and Truck Bryant, and it is likely to need a solid game from Deniz Kilicli to get some inside scoring. The length isn't likely to bother Kilicli as much as Kevin Jones, as the former utilizes the hook shot that typically takes away that strength.
The true battle, and one that could well decide the game, is on the boards. The Mountaineers must rebound and continually attack their assignments in this area. Shutting down transition and easy points is a given, as is remaining out of foul trouble when facing among the deepest benches in the nation. It reads like the breakdown to win most every game: rebound, don't allow easy buckets and avoid turnovers – while in this one also getting some inside scoring to offset UConn. This is a winnable game for West Virginia due to location more so than match-ups. Still, it would be surprising if the Mountaineers didn't show some grit and determination.
WVU: F Kevin Noreen (Knee), Out for Season.
Of West Virginia's 46 Coliseum wins under Bob Huggins, 26 have come in Big East play. All eight of WVU's home losses under Huggins have been to Big East teams.
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Coliseum foes are averaging less than 60 points per game under Huggins. West Virginia has played the fewest home games of any Big East team at 12.
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Truck Bryant needs 32 points to reach 1,000 for his career. Kevin Jones ranks 38th all-time in school history with 1,085 career points. John Flowers ranks fifth in school history with 148 blocks. Casey Mitchell has 60 three-pointers this season.
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West Virginia and St. John's are the only two Division I teams in the nation to have won three games against teams in the RPI top 10. WVU defeated Purdue, Notre Dame and Georgetown.
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West Virginia is 16-9 on March 2 and 202-143 all-time in March. It has won nine consecutive March games.
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The next Mountaineer win will be the program's 1,600th all-time. WVU is 22nd among all Division I schools in all-time wins.
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WVU last beat Connecticut in the 2008 Big East championship. The Mountaineers won 78-72. The Huskies are 4-4 in Big East road games.