NCAA Basketball

College Basketball Preview: West Virginia vs. Louisville

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West Virginia Moutaineers @ (23)Louisville Cardinals
KFC Yum! Center – Louisville, KY
Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011
Time: 7:02 pm EST
TV – ESPNU Carter Blackburn, play-by-play; LaPhonso Ellis, analyst.
Radio – WHAS (840 AM) Paul Rogers, play-by-play; Bob Valvano, analyst. (also SIRIUS ch. 121, XM 141)
Series History: UofL leads 7-3 (3-1 in Louisville, 2-2 in Morgantown, 2-0 neutral)
Officials: Jim Burr, Mike Roberts, Wally Ruteck

Before conference play began, Louisville’s Rick Pitino broke the schedule into six three-game segments with the goal being to go 2-1 in each segment. Mission accomplished through the first two, but this next segment will be arguably the toughest of the season. It starts on Wednesday night, at home against West Virginia and the Cards will then travel to Connecticut and Georgetown. This will be a big game for both squads in regards to jostling for early position and breathing room in the conference standings.

West Virginia is fresh off their first ever BIG EAST Championship and first Final Four appearance since 1959 last season. Despite the loss of Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith from last year’s squad, the Mountaineers return 10 players and five seniors. Unfortunately though, it appears that Bob Huggins, aka Huggy Bear, will be down to nine scholarship players as backup forward Dan Jennings literally walked off the court during Sunday’s game against South Florida. Jennings was supposed to be a beast underneath for the Mountaineers, and was ranked as the 23rd-best center in the 2009 class by, but it never quite worked out. Just take it from Huggy Bear:

“Yeah, it’s unexcused, unexcusable, never to be seen again I guess …” Huggins said, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. “I understand you have to report it, and that’s fine, but can we talk about the guys that play? Because he didn’t play anyways, and hasn’t played. The truth of the matter is he’s been a non-entity. We started him to try to get some other guys motivated and things and he did work hard in practice for a while. But look at his career stats. We just didn’t lose Kevin Jones, you know what I’m saying? It’s a sidebar. I believe that’s what you call it.”

Speaking of Kevin Jones, he is West Virginia’s second leading scorer (13.8) and leading rebounder (6.8). The 6’ 8″, 260lb senior forward is an outstanding offensive AND defensive player. When Jones gets the ball in his hands, he usually finds a way to score. He is not only a good rebounder, but specifically a great offensive rebounder, pulling down 3.1 offensive boards a game. Jones needs just 19 points to become the 47th West Virginian to reach the 1,000 point plateau for his career. He was one of six conference players, and the only non-guard named to the preseason all-BIG EAST first team. He can score it both inside and out, is a strong rebounder and defends both the perimeter and the post as well as anyone on the team.

Casey Mitchell is the Moutaineers’ leading scorer at 16.6 points per scrap, which is good enough for fourth in the BIG EAST. After 18 games, the 2009 National Junior College Player of the Year is shooting 44.2 percent from the field, 37.0 percent from 3-point range and 87.1 percent from the charity stripe. Earlier this season Mitchell set a Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament record for most points scored with 70 in three games. While he is an excellent outside shot, Mitchell can also create his own and take it to the bucket.

Darryl “Truck” Bryant is West Virginia’s leading assist man (3.5) and third leading scorer (11.8). He is a physical guard from the playgrounds of Brooklyn, NY who isn’t afraid to get to the rim and is an excellent perimeter shooter. He has a solid understanding of the game and can play at both guard spots. Do not expect him to be rattled in front of the Yum! Center crowd.

John Flowers, a versatile and athletic forward, has started in all 18 games and is fourth on the team in scoring (9.7), second in boards (6.4), third in assists (2.1) and blocks 2.3 shots a game. The senior has always been known as a strong defender and a hellacious shot blocker, but recently has had some career games on the offensive side of the ball. Flowers, averaging just 4.4 points a game for his career, led West Virginia to a 93-63 victory over Providence with a career-high 24 points, seven more than his previous high, all while holding Marshon Brooks to just 13 points. He then went for 15 points in the Mountaineers upset of eighth-ranked Purdue, and had 16 more in West Virginia’s loss to Marshall. He has shown the ability to slash to the basket and find a way to score, as well as bang away in the post and score it the old-fashioned way. If Flowers’ brings his newly found offensive arsenal to Louisville, the Cardinals could be in trouble.

Joe Mazzulla, despite being the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA East Regional last year, is not good. He does however lead the BIG EAST in assist to turnover ratio at 3.84-to-1. The left-hander is fundamentally sound and his intelligent play leads to sound decision making on his part. We will likely see his name in the NCAA’s coaching carousel soon.

In a trend I’ve been keeping my eye on, Louisville was able to stop a streak of allowing their opponents to make more free throws than they even attempted in their loss to the Friars… but just barely. Louisville attempted 17 charity stripe shots and Providence made 16. The Cardinals need to stop relying on the jumpshot and get aggressive.

Basically Louisville has become the 2011 version of Pitino’s Bambinos, firing at will from 3-point range. The Cards have shot 60 more threes than any other team and if their shots aren’t falling, they are going to lose. West Virginia is the conference’s best at defending the 3-point shot, holding opponents to just 27.4 percent shooting from downtown; good enough for fourth best in the nation. Something will have to give on Wednesday night. Louisville just became Providence’s first BIG EAST victim in 18 tries and I expect Slick Rick to have them motivated and ready to go back in the comforts of their home arena.

Louisville 69, West Virginia 64