I searched in vain for a West Virginia Mountaineers blog to try to set up some sort of exchange about this Sweet Sixteen matchup. I found one promising blog, but it had last been updated in late October. The rest that I found were just garbage. Which, I think, is appropriate. What a gudawful state. Nevertheless, while their state, and their bloggers, may make you hold your nose, the basketball team is making its second straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Tonight's game against Texas is a rematch of a December showdown that the Horns narrowly won after the Mountaineers bricked the front end of three straight one-and-ones down the stretch. What can we expect from tonight's game?
Diving in to the numbers, it's a fascinating matchup. West Virginia is just an incredibly interesting team. Consider the following: They allow opponents to shoot a ridiculously high 44.8% from the floor, while shooting 44.5% themselves. Of their 1,820 shots attempted this year, 934 have been three pointers (51%). They shoot a subpar 34.5% from beyond the arc, but only allow their opponents to shoot 33.6% on threes. They get out-rebounded by an average of 9.4 boards per game (37.5-28.1). Give any reasonable college basketball analyst those numbers, and the conclusion would most likely be, "Not a tourney team."
But here they are, having won 20 of their 30 games this year, and playing for a chance to make the Regional Finals. How exactly are they winning then? It's pretty simple, really. Simple, but interesting. The Mountaineers do two things well: (1) they dominate the turnover battle, giving up only 8.7 possessions per game while forcing 16.2 turnovers on the other end, and (2) they utilize the Great Equalizer in college basketball like those great Pitino-led Kentucky teams used to - the three pointer.
How do you win when you let teams shoot 45% from the field and shoot a pretty miserable 34% from three point land? Simple. Take lots and lots of threes and don't waste possessions. When you aren't shooting threes, shoot high percentage layups. It's a winning formula.
It is, however, prone to be exposed. The keys to the Texas victory tonight are ridiculously clear. Don't turn it over. Rebound well. Defend the perimeter. That's it. The Horns -should- win this game by double digits. If they fail in any of the three key areas above, we'll have ourselves a scrap.
The good news is that Texas has been excelling in these areas thus far in the tourney. Penn shot a woeful 32.1% from the floor; NC State only 39.3%. Even better, the Wolfpack managed only 3-of-22 shooting from beyond the arc. For the tourney, Texas' opponents are averaging 53 points per game on 36% shooting, including 26.5% from three-point range. West Virgina will have to best those numbers or Texas will run away with this game.
For Texas, the biggest concern will be trading two point baskets for West Virginia three pointers. Winning becomes infinitely more difficult when you have to make that many more field goals than your opponents, especially if you are turning it over a lot. They must avoid the turnover bug that's killed them in their losses (and many of their wins). If you see Texas making quick passes out of the double-teams and traps that West Virginia features in their 1-3-1 defense, you'll know we're in good shape. If the Horns try to dribble through everything (I'm talking to you, P.J.), we could be in for a long night.
One interesting story to follow will be the injury status of shooting guard Kenton Paulino, who's been bothered by a sore knee. If he's unable to play at full capacity, freshman AJ Abrams will need to step up and play like he did against NC State. Abrams has had a tendency to fall in to a good game-bad game pattern, which is not uncommon for a freshman, but not sustainable in the NCAA tournament. Getting strong minutes from Abrams will go a long way toward pushing Texas over the top.
In these two teams' first matchup, Texas just dominated the game. Well, almost. In only one area were the Horns deficient, and it was then, as it is tonight, the most crucial aspect of the game. Turnovers. Texas coughed the ball up a ridiculous 24 times, nullifying the equally ridiculous 40-19 rebounding edge that Texas enjoyed. If Texas even cuts those turnovers in half, and doesn't have a horrible shooting night, they'll bury the Mountaineers.
In the end, I think we'll see something in between. Texas is too turnover prone to put away West Virginia like they should, but the advantages they do have in this matchup will allow them to win. The spread in this game is five points, but I don't think it will be quite that close. Only a terrible performance from the Texas backcourt would allow West Virginia to win this one. I like what I see from Gibson, Abrams, and Paulino, though. Texas marches on to face Duke in the Regional Finals with a 81-72 victory.