The NCAA Tournament kicks in to high gear tomorrow and the featured game for those reading this blog is Gonzaga v. West Virginia which tips at 4:20 PST. Although the Mountaineers are in a very visible conference, they have been a pretty under the radar team this season. At 19-13 on the year, it hasn't been a banner year in Morgantown but they are once again in the 68-team field and, under Bob Huggins, they are always a danger in March. To get to know West Virginia a little better, we have enlisted our friends at The Smoking Musket to answer a few burning questions. Be sure to check out their site as we get closer to gametime!
The Slipper Still Fits: From an outsiders perspective, it is hard to say that West Virginia has been playing good basketball as of late. 8 of their last 12 games have resulted in losses and the only quality win in that stretch has been against South Florida. Have the Mountaineer faithful been worried lately or are these just the effects of playing a rigorous Big East schedule?
The Smoking Musket: From anyone's perspective, it's hard to say WVU has been playing good basketball recently. While our strength of schedule in that span has been pretty difficult (two games against Notre Dame plus Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, UConn, then Pitt and St. Johns were the losses), the Mountaineer faithful have definitely been restless. To be sure, there were some close losses in there, but close doesn't exactly cut in in the world of college basketball. At The Smoking Musket, we've beaten the perceived reasons for the slump to death, but the bottom line is the team hasn't improved like we thought it would. And that definitely has us worried against a team as good as Gonzaga.
TSSF: When I watch West Virginia, the main thing that stands out to me is that it just seems like this is a team that comes out with the intention to beat up the other team. Is the 'toughness' factor this teams best attribute or are we missing something way out here on the West Coast.
TSM: I don't know if I'd say the "intention" is to beat up the other team, but it's probably a result of Bob Huggins' defense-and-rebounding-first approach. For some strange reason, I don't think this year's team carries that same intensity the way the 2010 Final Four team did, but I still say it's our best attribute. In fact, I would say any team's hustle and sheer desire to win would be its best attribute. Guys who can shoot well, handle the ball, set up shots, rebound and play defense are great...but there's an intangible mental determination that separates truly great teams. Huggins is pretty good at instilling that in his team, so that even if the players aren't quite equal with the elite programs, WVU usually finds a way to compete.
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TSM: Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant. That is what comes to mind when I think of the Mountaineers. Is this team as dependent on these two as it seems or should Zag fans watch out for other contributors?
TSSF: I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head there. And just to be honest, Jones is going to get his points. His scoring comes from his work within the offense and his ability to grab offensive rebounds and get putbacks, so he's less prone to off games. Truck is the wild card---he can score 32 or 0, even on consecutive nights. Even if both of those guys play well, though, WVU still needs at least one other guy to step up. Typically, that has been forward Deniz Kilicli or one of the freshmen point guards, Gary Browne or Jabarie Hinds. But all three of them are complete roulette wheels in terms of what you're going to get from game to game. Bottom line: if you stop Truck, you probably stand a pretty good chance of winning.
TSSF: Not related to this game, but as a huge college basketball fan, I'm curious to get your thoughts on the virtual disintegration of the Big East. West Virginia will have a soft landing in the Big 12 but it'd be interesting to get your take on the end of the great Big East as we know it.
TSM: The realist in me knows that the Big East was a sinking ship and WVU needed to grab the first life boat that came along, so to that extent I'm excited to be in the Big XII, especially for football where we will get to play storied programs like Texas and Oklahoma on a yearly basis. We haven't had that in Morgantown in some time, so fans are frothing at the mouth for fall to get here. Basketball wise, the conference isn't that bad, with Kansas, Texas, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State all making the tournament this year. The biggest problem is the loss of the annual series with Pitt. I hope the schools figure out a way to continue that in football and basketball, because it's such a great rivalry.
But let's face it, the Big XII is not the Big East in basketball. I was fortunate enough to go to the Big East Tournament the year WVU won it, and it just had a special feel to it. Storied programs like Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse, UConn...all playing in the World's Most Famous Arena---you can't top that. My dream is for an eastern all-sports conference that would include Boston College, UConn, Syracuse, Rutgers, Pitt, WVU, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Louisville, Penn State, Army and Navy. But we all know that's never happening, so I'll briefly lament the end of an era in WVU sports before I start tailgating for the Oklahoma game. Cheers!
TSSF: Last, but not least, we need a prediction!
TSM: Ugh, I hate this part. I recognize that Gonzaga is the better team and has better players, but I'm a total homer. And for some inconceivable reason I still believe Kevin Jones has a little March magic left in him. WVU 64 - Gonzaga 63. ---
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