Well, it's a sad day in Morgantown after the awful bowl game we were subjected to last night. The best thing about this time of year is that the sports overlap, and while the football season has come to a disappointing finish, the basketball season is just picking up steam! I'm of the school of thought that says that college hoops season doesn't really start until conference play begins, anyways.
Today, the climb back to the top of the Big East begins for the West Virginia Mountaineers. A rejuvenated St. John's Red Storm comes into the Coliseum with former UCLA coach Steve Lavin now at the helm. The Red Storm are led by a talented trio of scorers in Dwight Hardy, Justin Brownlee and DJ Kennedy who are each averaging double digit scoring. There are no gimmes in Big East play, and the Mountaineers will face their first major test of the season.
What I'll be looking for tonight:
- The Big East numbers game begins. To get back into the big dance, the Mountaineers will need to tally at least 10 conference wins, though they may need as many as 12 to ensure a spot. That makes tonight's Big East opener so important. The Mountaineers need to pick up their first win at home with a three game road trip to Marquette, DePaul and Georgetown immediately following. The upside is that those are all winnable games. The downside is that the Big East is brutal. There will be plenty of stretches in the near future where the Mountaineers have to face two top ten teams in the same week. They have to pick up a win today, because things are only going to get rougher.
- How does Kevin Jones look? Jones has struggled this season, though has begun to show flashes of his old self. He's been a little dinged up, so hopefully the week off has given him time to heal. Once he's completely healthy, I fully expect his shooting touch to return to form. He needs to be a consistent presence on the glass and in the scorebook, because right now he, Cam Thoroughman and John Flowers are carrying the entire frontline with Danny Jennings injured and Deniz Kilicli hopelessly lost.
- Will the offense run? The bizarre parallel between the football and basketball teams this season is that sometimes points seem hard to come by. Truck Bryant has been up-and-down all year, either hitting a lot of shots or riding a lot of pine. The offense seems to run smoother with Joe Mazzulla in the game, but he lacks the scoring ability Truck brings to the court. That said, the offense seems to run more set plays, which have resulted in easy baskets. With Truck and Casey Mitchell, sometimes the offense degenerates into a jump shooting contest which includes a whole lot of standing around. If the Mountaineers can make their cuts tonight, they should be able to play to their strengths and get good easy looks for Jones, John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman. If there's a lot of standing around, then things could get ugly.
- Can Cam and J-Flow keep it up? Right now, the two most consistent Mountaineers have been two of the most unlikely, Cam Thoroughman and John Flowers. In the last two games Cam has gone from an off the bench specialist, to a guy who sees thirty plus minutes a game. That's been a product of a combination of Cam's great play and the fact no one else has stepped up. In the preseason, everyone thought that Jennings and Kilicli would have cemented their spots in the lineup but it just hasn't happened. Instead, Flowers' lay it on the floor play and Cam's court smarts have covered up what is a raging deficiency in the Mountaineers' play this season. Without them, the frontline would be utterly lost.
- Can the defense contend with Big East guards? Norris Cole looked unstoppable during the Mountaineers last official game eleven days ago against Cleveland State. Cole was the kind of dynamic scorer that the Mountaineers will see repeatedly in conference play and they didn't seem to know what to do with him. Dwight Hardy may not be Kemba Walker, but he's an athletic guard who can score and distribute the basketball. The Mountaineers will need to shut him down, or at least make his evening miserable to succeed. Whether or not Truck Bryant, Joe Mazzulla or Casey Mitchell get minutes tonight will be dictated by who can keep Hardy in check.