Heading into Morgantown is never a an easy environment. The Mountaineers have always had a raucous crowd in place for Big East contests, one that has become famous for it's belligerence and bad behavior that once provoked Bob Huggins to ask the fans to play nice. Villanova will have few advantages in their Big East opener, though they will have two — forwards Deniz Kilicli and Pat Forsythe are both unlikely to play tonight.
Kilicli sustained a hip pointer almost a week ago in a game against Missouri State. His recovery is underway, but he was limited in practice on Tuesday. He is the 'Eers' third-leading scorer this season, averaging 11.2 points and 6 rebounds per game.
Forsythe, however, is a reserve forward who has only appeared in 7 of 12 games so far this season, averaging 2.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest. He has been suffering from back spasms and spent Tuesday morning at the doctor's office instead of at practice. His loss robs the Mountaineers of some front court depth that will ultimately sting more if Kilicli cannot play.
Villanova has some injury concerns of their own in the front court, however. Mo Sutton is likely sidelined for the midweek game with a viral infection, and Mouph Yarou has been limited in action lately with a sprained ankle (Yarou is "about 80 percent" now). Neither injury will be of much comfort for fans of a team that has little depth in the "size department." Other than those two players, the Wildcats have just freshman Markus Kennedy checking in at 6-8 or taller.
West Virginia will certainly have their top two players available for the contest, however. Kevin Jones, a 6-8 senior forward averaged a double-double in non-conference play with 21 points and 11.9 rebounds per game — both stats lead all Big East players. Senior point guard, Darryl "Truck" Bryant, has also filled up the box scores with 16.3 points and 3.3 assists per game.
Bryant has been slightly surpassed as a passer by freshman Jabarie Hinds, a 5-11 point guard from New York, who has logged 3.8 assists per game along with 8.3 points and 1.7 steals. He is also one of the best three point shooters on the team, connecting on 40.9% of his 22 attempts.
Bryant is the most-common 3-point shooter, however, pulling the trigger 77 times from deep, he has connected on about 35% of his attempts. Jones also likes to take a shot from distance, but has thus-far had little luck, making just 22.2%. Freshman forward Aaron Brown from Darby, PA has led the team from deep, however, connecting on 48.3% from beyond the arc in a reserve role.
Overall, they have made about 33.3% of their attempts, slightly higher than the 31% of long-rangers that the Wildcats have knocked down.
West Virginia has been a team driven by excellent front court talent under Bob Huggins' tenure and that is no different this season. The Mountaineers have played well on the front-line both offensively and defensively. They have out-rebounded opponents 42-35.2 on average this season, which has been a slightly better margin than the Wildcats, which means that Villanova will need to work hard, crashing the boards and out-hustling West Virginia in order to maximize their possessions.
Offensively the Mountaineers have scored about 1.11 points per possession so far this season and allowed opponents to score 0.93 points per possession. Villanova, meanwhile has averaged 1.09 points per offensive possession and given up 0.96 per defensive possession. While Villanova's offensive production has actually declined as the season went along, dropping from a top-20 offense to around 48th right now, the defense has improved slightly in the last few games.
In particular, the Wildcats seemed to handle American University's shooters well. That may have been a result of an athleticism mismatch or luck as much as skill, of course.
In terms of outside shooting, however, West Virginia is somewhat similar to American. They are not a team with a vast array of sharpshooting weapons, but instead have a subset of players who have been very accurate from beyond the arc. Villanova will have to identify those players on the court and keep pressure on them outside.
Of course, forcing the Mountaineers to go inside probably isn't a concept that will give Bob Huggins nightmares. His talented front line will be able to make the most of opportunities in the paint as well. This game instantly becomes a test for Yarou and Kennedy to prove they can battle with the bigger bodies inside. When Pinkston or Bell are stationed at the 4, they may have to overcome some height deficits as well.
In order to leave West Virginia with a share of first place in the Big East, the Wildcats will have to grow up quickly. Hustle, rebounding and smart plays on defense will be needed to control the game. Offensively, a similar game plan to the American game would seem favorable, with players like Dominic Cheek limiting attempts from deep in favor of looking for an open shot elsewhere.
This Villanova team has a long way to go to get back on top of the universe. Big East play is as good a time as any to figure things out. After watching an otherwise unimpressive Notre Dame defeat a once-ranked Pittsburgh tonight, we are reminded that in conference play, anything can happen.
The game will tip-off at 7pm tonight and will be broadcast live on ESPN3.com and locally in Philadelphia on ThisTV, a digital sub-channel of WPHL-17; on SNY in the New York area; and on MASN in the Washington D.C. area.
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