Man, that wasn't fun to watch. At all. Objectively, it's the Mountaineers' worst loss of the season, getting run off of the court by a 16-point margin, and it couldn't have come at a worse time. While the Mountaineers were theoretically getting better with the return of Casey Mitchell, but there was zero evidence of that today. What I'm puzzled by is:
Why no defense? The Villanova guards lit up the Mountaineers' today. Corey Fisher and Malik Wayns provided buckets of points when the 'Cats need them most. Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant had flashes of competence, but all day the 'Nova guards dictated what was going to happen on their possessions. That great, disrupting Mountaineer defense was nowhere to be seen. Whenever John Flowers would try to mark a guard instead of a forward, Fisher or Wayns would dump it to an unguarded big man for an easy basket. It wasn't pretty.
The offense is still struggling. It would be nice to think that Mitchell's return would have meant that his 16 point per game average would return with him, but that didn't seem to be the case. Mitchell was a non-factor with only 13 minutes played. The sum of his afternoon was a pair of turnovers, a pair of rebounds and three ill-advised shots. Not good. However, I'm not blaming Mitchell for the loss, by any means. No Mountaineers shot well, save for John Flowers and Kevin Jones, both of whom had functional afternoons, but only because the Wildcats refused to guard them at the perimeter. Truck Bryant missed huge stretches of the game with fouls and injury, and Joe Mazzulla couldn't get any offensive rhythm going.
The guys who need to fill in the gaps on offense, didn't.Deniz Kilicli and Dalton Pepper are guys who need to see their offensive game grow by leaps and bounds down the stretch. Villanova's variety of defenses had the Turk guarded closely in the post and he was never able to set up the moves that he's known for. The WVU guards couldn't get him the ball, and he was generally stymied the entire game. Pepper had moments of greatness, burying three triples, but also jacked up a few ill-advised shots early in the possession that led to some run-outs for the Wildcats. Pepper has shown improvement over the last couple of weeks, but right now he's still far away from being able to be counted on to contribute consistently.
Time to Brawl. The 'Eers drop to 6-4 in conference, and the logjam in the Big East shifts, slightly. The Mountaineers are now in a five way tie for fourth. Things don't get easier, as Pittsburgh comes to Morgantown for Big Monday. While a fiercer opponent than Villanova, Pitt actually matches up a little better with the Mountaineers, both with the size of their team and their style of play. It doesn't ever get easier in the Big East, but it never ceases to be entertaining.
West Virginia kicks off a weekend jam-packed with great sports with a twelve noon tipoff at #12 Villanova. After this one, it's a quick turnaround before #2 Pittsburgh comes calling at the Coliseum Monday night. These two games represent one of the toughest stretches on the schedule, and how the Mountaineers react may determine how well the rest of the season unfolds for the Blue and Gold. The major storylines this afternoon:
The return of Casey Mitchell. The WV Gazette is reporting that the Mountaineers' leading scorer made the trip to Philadelphia, while it's still unclear whether he'll play or not. If Mitchell does see the court, it returns one of the team's best scorers to the floor while potentially upsetting the chemistry that has been created over the last three games. I expect Mitchell to play, but to come of the bench. The short-handed edition of the Mountaineers made great strides over the last three games. The short bench situation forced them to play smarter on both ends of the floor, and they responded. Smart play is of the essence this afternoon if the Mountaineers hope to sniff a victory.
Clamping down in the back court.Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes will present plenty of problems for the Mountaineer guards. Joe Mazzulla just can't guard both of them. John Flowers may draw Stokes, or he may mark Antonio Pena. Wherever the Mountaineers best defenders may find themselves on the court, Villanova will still have weapons that they can't address. Keeping Villanova in a grinding halfcourt game will go a long way towards helping the Mountaineers chances. If Fisher and Stokes dictate the tempo, then it's going to be a long afternoon.
The Mountaineers must keep their balance. Mitchell's return could force a shift in the multi-dimensional approach to offense the squad has taken the last few games. This could only do bad thing for the 'Eers. West Virginia needs to see four or five players score ten points, instead of one guy gunning for thirty. As long as Cam Thoroughman, Deniz Kilicli, John Flowers and Kevin Jones have active roles down low, things will be looking good. If it turns into the Truck and Casey jacking up threes show... well, bad things man.
The numbers say... this one is huge. 'Nova and West Virginia are both a part of a nine team logjam in the middle of the conference. West Virginia should still be in a stable tournament-bound position even if they drop this one and the Backyard Brawl, but things would be looking iffy. Quite simply, this is a great opportunity for the Mountaineers to cement themselves in the upper half of the conference.