WEST VIRGINIA (11-3, 1-1) AT LOUISVILLE (10-4, 0-1)
Game Time: 7 p.m.
Favorite: Louisville by 3.5
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 4-2
Last Meeting: Louisville won 82-71 (2 OT) in last year's Big East Tournament
Probable West Virginia Starting Lineup
G Darris Nichols 10.9 ppg
G Alex Ruoff 16.4 ppg
C Jamie Smalligan 3.1 ppg
F Da'Sean Butler 12.6 ppg
F Joe Alexander 15.6 ppg
This game has been circled on the calendar of many a U of L fan for months now since it marks the return of Bob Huggins to Freedom Hall. But Louisville's loss to Cincinnati on New Year's Day coupled with the fact that West Virginia is off to a surprisingly fast start have made tonight's stakes that much higher.
The biggest question for the Mountaineers heading into this season was how well the returning players would adapt to a Huggins system that is vastly different than the one they had become accustomed to under now-Michigan head coach John Beilein. WVU starts two seniors and two juniors who played on last year's NIT champion (and NCAA Tournament snub) team, so talent was never an issue.
The best thing Huggins has done with this team (take notes Gillispie), is not do away with everything that his players had done successfully under Beilein. He's instituted his own basketball philosophy, stressed more physical play and aggressive defense, but he also knew that a complete overhaul would essentially make this a throw-away season and the talents of a pair of gifted seniors would go completely to waste. The Mountaineers still make more threes than any team in the league, but they also boast improved numbers in assists, field goal percentage, and steals.
"They've totally embraced it," Huggins said of the changes. "They enjoy playing the way we have them playing. And we're still shooting a lot of threes. We're still trying to back cut people. That's basketball. It's just a different way of doing it."
The man can coach.
The Mountaineers rank 17th in the country in scoring at 83.2 ppg, but are averaging only 11.6 turnovers, good for best in the conference. Most of the credit for this should be sent in the direction of veteran guards Darris Nichols and Alex Ruoff. Nichols, a senior, is averaging 10.9 ppg, but makes his biggest contribution to the team by being a steady ball handler and effective distributor. He has dished out 50 assists to just 18 turnovers thus far this season. Ruoff is the team's leading scorer at 16.4 ppg, leads the league in threes per game at 3.4, and has connected on a sparkling 46.6 percent (48-103) of his attempts from beyond the arc.
WVU's frontcourt of Da'Sean Butler, Joe Alexander, and Jamie Smalligan (punny) is talented enough to get done what Huggins wants accomplished on the offensive end of the floor, but they've had a hard time slowing down talented post players, one of the main reasons the 'Eers were able to beat Marquette by 15 (no post players), but fell to Notre Dame by 13 (Harangody be good) and Oklahoma in double overtime (Griffin and Longar too). The Mountaineers will likely try and get U of L's big men in foul trouble early, or attempt to coax the Cards into again falling in love with the outside shot. If Louisville wins this game then you can bank on the fact that either Derrick Caracter, Earl Clark or David Padgett will have had a monster game, because this is simply not a team you can beat with solid guard play alone.
Controlling the glass will also be enormous tonight. West Virginia shoots well and isn't particularly rattled by pressure, so U of L has got to make sure that the Mountaineers don't have two or three shot possessions on a regular basis. The Cards have a significant size advantage, so winning the rebounding battle is an absolute must. Such a must that I'm going to go ahead and say that if Louisville gets outrebounded tonight they will fall to 0-2 in the Big East.
--Juan Palacios needs just eight points to become Louisville's 58th 1,000-point scorer.
Goggles chant if it happens? One-man goggles chant if it happens?
--Bob Huggins has never beaten a Rick Pitino-coached team in Freedom Hall, and has lost four straight in the Derby City. His last win at Louisville came in Denny Crum's final season, when Cincinnati topped the Cards 72-52 in 2001.
--West Virginia ranks 21st in the Sagarin Ratings, and 28th in the RPI.
--Louisville is shooting 49% from the field in the second half, as opposed to 39.1% in the first half.
--U of L ranks 18th in the country in field goal percentage defense at 37.8%.
This is an absolutely enormous game, and not only because it's against West Virginia and Huggins. Despite what Bob Knight would like you to believe, game-to-game momentum does exist in college basketball, and consecutive wins over Kentucky and West Virginia would be enormous for the psyche of this team. Conversely, consecutive conference home losses could very well have an overwhelmingly negative effect on the squad's mental state.
I'm a huge believer in this West Virginia team, and I think a win tonight might very well end up looking better than a win over Villanova or Pittsburgh come March. The Mountaineers should make the NCAA Tournament, and Louisville has yet to defeat a team that will finish its season in the Big Dance (prove me wrong UNLV).
The game is the only real show in town at 7 p.m., so a win would also go a long way in repairing this team's national image. The country knows about the injuries to Palacios and Padgett, but it also knows that they're back now. If U of L can pull this one out then whatever unqualified people ESPN has behind its college basketball desk tonight will tell the nation that "this is the team we all expected to see before the season." If they lose, well then it's back to being the biggest disappointment of the year.
It's only January 10, but the stakes are very high.
CC Prediction: Louisville 78, West Virginia 76
Just another classic.