West Virginia and Minnesota square off this evening in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Championship Game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff. If the Mountaineers can handle the Golden Gophers tonight, then they'll win their early season tournament for the second year in a row. Last season, the Mountaineers' early season "championship" helped them gel as a team, and that team ended up in the Final Four. While I was rooting hard for a matchup against the Tar Heels, Minnesota offers some compelling storylines going into this evening's game.
The first and most obvious is the two coaches, Tubby Smith and Bob Huggins. Rarely will you find a matchup which pits two hall of fame coaches against each other. To add a tournament-play do or die angle just sweetens the deal. I imagine tonight's TV commentators will spend ample minutes showering praise on the men on the sidelines. Where they should have their attention, is on the men under the basket.
This game will be decided by whichever team can have a more decisive presence in the paint. For the Mountaineers, that means getting Kevin Jones rolling early and keeping him active all game. KJ had a quiet double-double against Vanderbilt, but he needs to get better looks inside, and needs to start hitting his outside shots too. That will come. Danny Jennings and Deniz Kilicli will need to hold ground against Minnesota's interior trio of Trevor Mbakwe, Maurice Walker and Ralph Sampson III. Jennings is surely up for the task, but Kilicli has looked utterly lost on the defensive end and could be a liability. If that turns out to be the case, expect Cam Thoroughman to come off the bench to muck it up a little. Not the world's most gifted athlete, Cam has never shied away from a little pushing and shoving and poses a stiff obstacle for much bigger players to get around.
If Truck Bryant can keep the ball moving, and either Casey Mitchell, Dalton Pepper or Jonnie West can get hot, then I expect the Mountaineers to score enough to come out of paradise with a Tipoff Championship. If the Mountaineers can't score easily, then this game could degenerate into a sluggish grudgematch of a basketball game. While that has suited the Mountaineers in the past, it may not be enough to hold off a good Minnesota team that expects to find itself in the mix for a Big Ten Championship this season.
What I do know is this: this is as good of a November college basketball matchup as you're ever going to find.