UPDATING THE HUSKIESS
WVU has played UConn well at times during its Big East tenure, but wins have been few and far between. The Mountaineers own just five victories all-time against the Huskies, but three of those have come in the last seven games. Most recently, West Virginia let a ten-point second half lead get away late in a 64-57 loss in Hartford.
Since that game, UConn has been up and down -- much like the Mountaineers -- and flirting with the NCAA tournament bubble. It finished the regular season with a 5-9 mark following the WVU win, and has battled inconsistent play as well as the lengthy absence of head coach Jim Calhoun, who missed nine games following surgery to correct spinal stenosis. Calhoun returned to the bench for UConn's Senior Day win over Pitt, and certainly provided a lift for his squad in its regular season finale.
The Huskies continue to go deep into their bench, with nine players averaging more than 11 minutes per game. Jeremy Lamb leads the scoring parade with 17.6 points per outing, but he gets plenty of support from Shabazz Napier (12.4), Ryan Boatright (10.3) and Andre Drummond (10.2). Drummond's emergence, however, has apparently caused some problems for Alex Oriakhi, who has seen his scoring and rebounding numbers drop to 6.9 and 4.8, respectively. Oriakhi certainly has the talent to put up better totals, but there's definitely been a shift in the focus of the Huskie offense, and Oriakhi has been something of the odd man out as a result. If he can get back to his form of a year ago, UConn certainly has the ability to make another tournament run.
The Huskies' guards are the focal point of their offense, but the key match-up in this contest might come on the inside.
Madison Square Garden
WVU 19-12, 9-9
UC 19-12, 8-10
WVU - 42
UC - 33
West Virginia will face the interior duo of Drummond and Oriakhi, buttressed by Niels Giffey, and will have to keep that trio from dominating in the lane. Drummond had 20 points and 11 rebounds in the first meeting between the two teams this year, offsetting Kevin Jones' 22 points and five boards. WVU will have to play better interior defense than it did two months ago against the Huskies, and prevent some of the easy shots UConn got. Drummond and Oriakhi combined to shoot 13-16 from the field in that game -- a rate the Mountaineers can't afford to yield again. Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones will have to be strong on post defense, and sub Dominique Rutledge could be key if he can body up on the inside and keep UConn front-liners away from the hoop.
Of course, there's always UConn's transition game to be dealt with as well. The assignment here for WVU is simple to explain, but may be difficult to execute. WVU simply has to stop the ball when UConn is on the run -- that is, pick up the player with the ball, keep him from driving straight to the basket and make him give it up earlier than he would wish. That has proven to be a tough task for West Virginia defenders this year, who haven't shown the consistent ability to get in front of foes and turn the ball away from the basket.
Offensively, WVU likely needs at least 50 points from its Big Three in order to have a chance to win the game. It's tough to expect the newcomers to have big games in their first experience in post-season play, so the weight may fall on the trio of Jones, Kilicli and Truck Bryant to do just a bit more than they did in the first game against the Huskies, where they combined for 42 points.
West Virginia has reached the semifinals of the Big East tournament in three of the last four years under Bob Huggins. WVU has reached the semifinals in four of the last seven championships with a Big East Championship finals appearance in 2005 and a tournament title in 2010.
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UConn is 7-2 all-time as the number nine seed in the Big East tournament. Five of those wins came last year on its march to the league title.
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West Virginia has won 11 of its last 17 Big East tournament games, with all of those wins coming since 2005. The Mountaineers are also the only Big East team to post a .500 record or better in conference play in each of the last eight seasons.
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Like Kevin Jones for WVU, UConn's Jeremy Lamb has been recording iron man minutes for the Huskies. Lamb went into the Big East tournament averaging 36.8 minutes per game this year, which puts him third on the Huskies' all-time list for minutes player per game in a season.