Wildcats take streaking ways on the road, square off with West Virginia

Michael Zipf

Opponent Overall

Riding a five-game winning streak with victories over two Top-25 teams, the men’s basketball team will face a pesky West Virginia squad that is clinging on to its NCAA Tournament aspirations. Under second-year head coach and alumnus Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers have experienced an up-and-down season posting a 16-8 overall record with a 5-6 record in the conference play. With only one marquee victory over a Top-25 team, the Mountaineers face Villanova in search of a victory to solidify their NCAA Tournament quest.

Although the Mountaineers have entered a difficult stretch, the emergence of junior Da’Sean Butler has Mountaineers fans wondering whether he is the second coming of Joe Alexander. Last season, Alexander, an NBA lottery pick, propelled West Virginia to the Sweet 16 after the team was pegged to finish ninth in the Big East conference. This season, Butler is recording numbers that surpass the likes of Alexander, Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey.

Recently, Butler has scored 20 or more points in six straight games, only four short of the record held by Hall of Famer Jerry West. Despite Butler’s recent success, the Mountaineers have struggled due to their youth and the loss of junior point guard Joe Mazzulla, who enjoyed a stellar NCAA Tournament last season.

Opponent’s Strengths

West Virginia is an athletic team led by Butler and freshman pheonom Devin Ebanks, whom Huggins briefly moved to point guard after freshman guard Darryl Bryant proved inept. Alex Ruoff remains in a shooting slump, but has delivered a stellar senior season averaging 16.3 points per game along with 3.5 assists per game. The outside shooting of Butler and Ruoff has opened up the lane for slashers like Ebanks and Kevin Jones.

West Virginia occasionally employs a 1-3-1 defense adopted by predecessor Jim Beilein; however, Huggins has continually preached his stifling man-to-man defense. Huggins’ emphasis on defense has paid dividends as the Mountaineers have held all their opponents under 80 points this season. With Villanova ranked in the top five in the Big East in team defense, this should prove to be an intriguing matchup of two stellar defenses. Good looks at the basket should be at a minimum.

Opponent’s Weaknesses

A lack of a big time post player has plagued the Mountaineers all season. Junior Wellington Smith, an undersized center, has improved his game this season, providing coach Huggins with an athletic shot-blocking forward. Jones, a heralded freshman, has underperformed this season averaging a measly 5.6 points per game. He has struggled during his first season at the foul line, shooting a paltry 57.9 percent.

Ebanks was supposed to be the savior for Mountaineer fans after the departure of Alexander. Ebanks, one of the best athletes in the nation, has endured an inconsistent freshman campaign, showing sparks of brilliance including a 13-point, six assist effort against Providence. Shifting Ebanks to the point forward has allowed him to facilitate the offense and be more active on the offensive end. With the departure of Mazzulla, the Mountaineers have sorely missed a third scoring option after Ruoff and Butler.

As a result of West Virginia’s undersized frontcourt, the Wildcats should be able to capitalize on points in the paint and maintain a strong rebounding margin. In their game against Syracuse, the Wildcats enjoyed a plus nine rebounding margin against a strong Syracuse frontcourt. West Virginia’s lack of a true experienced point guard has resulted in numerous turnovers, which should play right into the ‘Cats active defense. During the last two games, Villanova has forced opponents into 15 and 19 turnovers, respectively.

Who to Watch

Containing Butler will be a major priority and the focal point of Jay Wright’s defensive schemes. Expect Wright to throw a barrage of defenders at the versatile forward with junior Reggie Redding earning most of the assignment. Butler’s ability to attack the basket and hit the step back jumper separates him from the majority of forwards. In addition, Butler has expanded his range this season, connecting on over 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Besides Butler, containing Ruoff on the outside will be critical. The marksman is a career 38 percent shooter from beyond the arc. A savvy player, Ruoff is one of the few Mountaineers who can create his own shot. However, the Moutaineers postseason hopes could lie on the shoulders of Ebanks, who is beginning to emerge as the player that NBA scouts are raving about. With the Mountaineers now at 5-6 in the Big East, they need Ebanks to step up as the third option immediately.

What to Watch for

Expect Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark and Antonio Peña to dominate the paint against a small West Virginia lineup. Cunningham had a career-high 31-point 9-rebound performance last Saturday, and should continue his sensational senior season. Last season, senior forward Dwayne Anderson enjoyed a great game against West Virginia, connecting on five 3-pointers, finishing the game with 17 points. Over the last few weeks, Anderson has emerged as a major force on the offensive end, especially on the offensive glass. Anderson is one of two Wildcats averaging over two rebounds per game on the offensive end.

Getting junior guard Scottie Reynolds out of a recent shooting slump will be critical as the Wildcats head toward the Big East Tournament. For the season Reynolds is shooting a subpar 38 percent from the field. Expect Reynolds to find his stroke and be more assertive on the offensive end. The emergence of the two Coreys against Syracuse provided a real spark for the Wildcats. When both sophomore guard Corey Fisher and Reynolds take the court at the same time, Villanova has outscored its opponents by more than 150 points this season.

Villanova 75, West Virginia 62