Seven straight Big East wins for the first time since 2001. Three consecutive league victories on the road – again, a first since ’01. A No. 7 ranking on February 19th (the highest for the program at this juncture of the season calendar since 1981). And 21 wins in the first 25 games – half of which have been played vs. the nation’s Top 50 RPI.
Each streak and ancillary national standing is in jeopardy today for Mike Brey’s Irish as they enter one of the most hostile environs in the Big East, the WVU Coliseum.
Notre Dame (21-4/10-3) – Has won seven straight with three road conference losses (Syracuse, Marquette, St. John’s) and a loss in Louisville to Kentucky as the only blemishes through 25 games.
West Virginia (16-9/7-6) – Lost Monday at Syracuse, 63-52. The Mountaineers have dropped five of their last nine including four matchups vs. ranked foes (Louisville, at Villanova, home vs. Pittsburgh, and Monday at the Carrier Dome) after defeating then-No. 8 Purdue on January 16.
Tip-off: 1:00 EST (CBS)
Previous Meeting: The Mountaineers defeated the Irish in the Big East semi-finals, 53-51. Notre Dame had a chance to win at the buzzer but Tory Jackson’s pull-up three-point shot bounced off the front rim, sending West Virginia to the conference finals – and eventual Big East Championship. The Irish were led by Ben Hansbrough’s 17 points and an efficient Burn offense that turned the ball over on just four occasions.
West Virginia was paced by Tournament MVP Da’Sean Butler with 24 points. Butler was held without a field goal over the final 11 minutes by Irish forward Tyrone Nash.
Series history: Notre Dame leads the series 25-11 including a run of 11 consecutive wins from February 1999 through January 2005. West Virginia has since won four of seven since including both meetings in Morgantown. Head coach and WVA alum Bob Higgins has won three of five vs. Mike Brey’s Irish since taking over in 2007.
Notre Dame (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John’s, Cincinnati, Marquette, at Pittsburgh, Louisville)
West Virginia: (Vanderbilt, at Georgetown, Purdue, at Cincinnati)
Point Spread: Not yet available
Meet the Mountaineers
Morgantown native and WVA alum Bob Huggins is at his fourth season leading his alma mater. The abrasive leader drove his like-sized squad of 6’8” athletes to the 2010 Final Four last spring, eventually bowing out vs. the National Champion Duke Blue Devils.
In 2011, Huggins crew has lost a bit of its offensive luster with a trio of shooting percentages commensurate with the league’s cellar: 42/68/33 (FG/FT/3PT) but a defensive mindset that places West Virginia among the league’s top six in most relevant categories: Scoring Defense (62.9 ppg – 3rd); FG Percentage Defense (42.2% – 6th); 3-Point FG Percentage Defense (29% – 1st); and Blocked Shots (5th).
West Virginia attacks the offensive glass for a league-best 14.3 per game. They’re unselfish (2nd in the conference in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio) and play with a defensive chip on their shoulder forged by their aggressive head coach.
Starters and key reserves:
Leading the charge this season is sophomore Casey Mitchell. The 6’4” senior and former transfer is the team’s best overall shooter, both mid-range and from downtown, highlighted by 38 percent accuracy on a team-high 142 three-point attempts, and an 87.7 percent effort from the charity stripe. Mitchell paces West Virginia with 15.4 ppg and is coming off a game in which he drained 7 deep balls in a loss at Syracuse. Mitchell was suspended by Huggins for three games early this month for undisclosed reasons.
Junior big man Kevin Jones leads the Mountaineers with 7.0 rebounds per game and ranks among the nation’s best on the offensive glass while playing a team-high 34 minutes per night. Possessing a nice touch from the baseline, Jones has nonetheless intermittently struggled in 2011, faring much better (in nearly every statistical category) as the team’s third/fourth option last winter than as its second-leading scorer this year. Jones hit for 27 points while hitting 12 of 17 field goal attempts over a two-game set with the Irish last season.
The point guard duties are again handled by the tandem of junior Darryl “Truck” Bryant and top-notch on-ball defender, Joe Mazzulla. Both average 26 minutes per night and better than three assists per contest though Mazzulla is more careful with the basketball. Bryant has hit for double figures just once in the team’s last eight contests while Mazzulla has three such outings over the same span.
Mazzulla hurt the Irish last season with his ability to control the team’s point guard defensively and knack for getting to, and finishing at the rim (14 points in two games off the bench). Irish defenders should back off Mazzulla early as the 5th-year senior ranks as one of the worst three-point shooting guards in the conference, due largely to an elbow injury suffered in 2008. (Bryant’s no long-range marksman, either.)
6’7” senior forward John Flowers has netted double digits in nine of the team’s last 11, including a 7-14 effort from long range over the last four contests. The lanky senior is second on the team with 6.2 boards per game and has blocked at least two shots in 12 league games this season. One of the most improved players in the conference, Flowers will employ fly-paper defense vs. Irish forwards Tim Abromaitis or Carleton Scott.
Senior hatchet-man Cam Thoroughman comes off the bench with a penchant for the physical. Adept at getting under an opponent’s skin, the versatile defender could matchup with Tyrone Nash underneath or Abromaitis outside depending on the tenor of the contest. The formerly ineffective Thoroughman has carved out a niche in the offense, doubling his career-best in minutes (18 per game) with better than a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
6’9” 270-pound sophomore Deniz Kilicli can score on anyone in the post when his old school hook shot (either hand) finds rhythm. Kilicli score 19 points on 9-13 shooting in a loss to Pittsburgh. Sophomore guard Dalton Pepper lends a three-point threat off the pine as well (21-55 this season).
Streak in jeopardy?
Today’s contest is a must-win for the Mountaineers, mired at 9th place in league play with peers Cincinnati and Marquette within a half-game in the standings.
A win would place West Virginia at 8-6 with three games remaining vs. the nation’s Top 16 and also a tricky road test at Rutgers, remaining.
The surging, vastly improved Irish have to lose sometime in the nation’s toughest conference. I’ve had this pegged as a difficult defeat for Brey’s bunch for more than a month, so I’ll stick with the initial forecast despite a trio of road victories earned since.
The Mountaineers ability to defend without needing excessive help and attack the offensive glass at the other end will serve as deciding factors.
Prediction: West Virginia 70 Notre Dame 64
Season Predictions (vs. major conference opponents): 14-5; 11-7-1 against the spread.