SCOUTING THE BEARS
Morgan State enters Buffalo having won seven in a row to capture both the regular and postseason Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles. The Bears get good scoring and production all over the floor, but the attack is spearheaded by senior guard Reggie Holmes (6-4, 180 lbs.) – a player WVU head coach Bob Huggins says would make an all-conference squad in any league. The Baltimore native averages 22 points and four rebounds. He’s a decent shooter at 40 percent from the field, 37 from three, though his best offensive assets come from getting into the lane and drawing contact or finishing toward the rim. He has good length, and his ability to make clutch shots from both sides of the arc is one reason he was named the MEAC Player of the Year. Holmes plays a team-high 33 minutes per game, but expect that to be more against the Mountaineers. WVU can’t hack away here, as Holmes hits 82 percent from the line, and it must find him on the glass, as he is second on the team in offensive rebounding. Part of that is his tendency to be around the rim, but part is exceptional judgment at reading rebounds and getting his body in a position to capitalize on athleticism. This is a tough draw on defense, and it looks as though it will likely go to Da’Sean Butler in what will amount the the game’s best overall head-to-head. Like West Virginia, Morgan State doesn’t get a ton of points from the one slot, as Sean Thomas (6-1, 185 lbs.) hits for five a game. He has taken just 18 threes all year, and his overall shooting numbers are average. It’s his job to handle the ball safely and get MSU into its offensive flow. Thomas has almost a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and isn’t often bothered by pressure. The sophomore, though, has not seen the length of West Virginia often this season (Minnesota is one exception, and the Gophers easily defeated Morgan State). He could be bothered by Joe Mazzulla’s defensive pressure and relentlessness while not being able to match it at the other end. Third guard Troy Smith (6-4, 195 lbs.) averages 10 points and four boards a game and is god around the rim. He is struggling from three-point range, allowing foes to back off him some and better defend against interior chances and drives. His size isn’t bad, but when confronted with the length and close-out ability of West Virginia, it remains to be seen if he can handle and score effectively. His defensive game is among the best on the team, combining quickness with savvy and intelligent game play. This would be the most likely player to rotate off on Butler if Holmes looses contain or gets screened off.
Forwards Kevin Thompson (6-9, 240 lbs.) and DeWayne Jackson (6-8, 210 lbs.) average 13 and 10 points, respectively, from their five and four slots. Thompson is very good on the boards at 12 per game, and his 53 percent shooting from the field leads the team. The sophomore is second behind Holmes in minutes played and free throw attempts, and he has amassed 50 blocks. This isn’t a game-changer on the defensive end, but allowing him second chances could severely hurt a Mountaineer team that hasn’t shot well and needs rebounds itself to be successful. West Virginia must find Thompson and get a body on him. Remaining physical within the limits of how the referees call the game will be important. WVU has better depth and is much longer, a combination that could make it a rough 40-minute go for Morgan State’s premier frontcourt talent. Jackson, a freshman, is surprisingly the team’s best outside shooter at 44 percent from three (54 of 123). He will put it up from anywhere, and could be the best option for the Bears if the interior is getting clogged. Head coach Todd Bozeman needs Jackson to hit a few threes to force the Mountaineers away from the basket, thereby opening driving and passing lanes and the ability to better match-up in rebounding. Jackson must be challenged on shots, then held off of the glass as he uses his size to follow his own shot.
Bozeman typically uses four players off the bench for at least 13 minutes a game each, though that should be shortened against West Virginia. Point guard Joe Davis (6-0, 180 lbs.) is a sure thing to see time. He has played in all 36 games for about 14 minutes each. He is a reliable reserve ball handler who can sub in and out with Sean Thomas without a noticeable drop-off. Davis shoot 40 percent, but just 25 from three, but Thomas isn’t much better. Again, protect the basketball and get others into the offensive sets to score. Davis doesn’t do that as well as Thomas, and has more turnovers than assists, thus his bench status. Another guard, Danny Smith (5-11, 190 lbs.), has started 10 times this year, but his horrid shooting (35 percent, 18.8 from three) finally forced him to come off the bench. He is bad from the line as well, and is usually used on the defensive side, where he fares much better. Forward Ameer Ali (6-4, 230 lbs.) isn’t an outside threat, and indeed his entire game is inside the arc. He is making more than 50 percent from the field, but has yet to take a three this season and struggles at times because of his lack of height. He averages five points and four rebounds, but isn’t great at the line. He is a bit too thick for his own good, and indeed is limited because if that. This is a project player still in development. Rodney Stokes (6-10, 225 lbs.), three points, 2.6 boards, has decent moves around the rim and seems to play better against high-level competition. The junior had 10 points and eight rebounds against Louisville, though the Cards’ inability to hit the boards was exposed as the season progressed. Stokes doesn’t get to the line much, but this is another sizeable player for which to account in the rebounding game.
|Fri. March 19
12:15 p.m. EST
|Sirius Channel: 90
WVU – 4
MSU – 103
If it reads as though rebounding and denying the open outside look are the key for about the seventh straight game, it’s because they are. Morgan State shoots 43 percent as a team from the field and 34 percent from three. Those are decent numbers, but what the Bears live on his putback tries and getting just enough production from the outside to open spots on the floor from where the majority of the roster feels comfortable scoring. WVU has good length, and it could be difficult for MSU to fire passes from the post. It might have to attack from three-point range and off the bounce by Holmes at first to see if it can better open the floor. If it can’t, the Mountaineers should be in position to take advantage despite recent shooting woes. If it can, it opens up the offensive game much more for a team that routinely reached 80-plus points, albeit against lesser competition than what West Virginia played. The depth, defensive ability, rebounding and overall talent go to the two-seed, as they often do in what appears in terms of numbers to be a lopsided match-up. But because of WVU’s shooting issues and cold stretches, foes often come back or remain in games longer than they should. Given that and Morgan State’s almost certain hype and total concentration on this game, miscues and poor shot selection could lead to a tighter contest than most fans and pundits expect. And when a game’s close in the NCAAs, even in an advantageous geographical area for many of the top seeds fans, the crowd backs the underdog. West Virginia was bitten last season; it shouldn’t happen twice.
MSU: F Anthony Anderson (Out for Season), Illness.
West Virginia is making its 23rd NCAA Tournament appearance, dating to 1955. It has reached the Sweet 16 in four of its last five showings, the lone miss coming last season when WVU lost an opening round game to Dayton.
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Morgan State lost to Oklahoma in a 15 vs. 2 game in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
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West Virginia came into this season ranked 24th among all NCAA teams with 1,550 victories. Once the season is completed the Mountaineers will jump two spots to 22nd past Cincinnati and Princeton. The Mountaineers now trail Purdue by eight victories for 21st place.
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Huggins now has 76 wins at West Virginia. He has won 10 postseason tournament championships in four different leagues. This will be his 18th NCAA appearance as a head coach.
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WVU is 23-0 this season when holding foes to less than 70 points.
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In the Big East Tournament title game win over Georgetown, Da’Sean Butler became the third player in West Virginia University history to reach 2,000 or more career points (Jerry West, Rod Hundley).
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West Virginia’s 27 wins are two shy of tying the school record of 29 set in 1959. The Mountaineers lost the NCAA title game that year. WVU has never lost to a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team (12-0).