The West Virginia Mountaineer men's basketball team travels to the Bluegrass state tonight to square off against Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals. This will be the Mountaineers' first appearance in Lousiville's brand spankin' new arena. Here's what's on my mind tonight:
- The new, shorter Mountaineer bench. The turmoil this past week which led to Danny Jennings permenant dismissal from the team and Casey Mitchell's suspension means the Mountaineers have only 8 scholarship players for tonight's game. That means, most likely, your only available substitutes are Deniz Kilicli (who said he prefers to come off of the bench, meaning Cam Thoroughman presumably starts), Dalton Pepper and Jonnie West. That is not a lot. Especially where size is concerned. I expect Pepper to seize the opportunity for extended playingtime without looking over his shoulder for Huggins' hook. Pepper has to shoot well and crash the boards for it not to look like the ‘Eers are playing with one hand tied behind their back.
- The big men must battle... but not too hard. With Jennings gone, the Mountaineer frontline consists of only John Flowers, Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and Cam Thoroughman. That's not a whole lot to work with. Simply put, the big guys have to stay out of foul trouble. Huggins will only have the freedom to keep one of those guys on the bench at a time, so quick fouls could kill any WVU inside presence. A foul-fest like the Marshall game could have the Mountaineers fielding a court full of walk-ons in no time.
- Defending Louisville's guards will be a problem for the very same reason. Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla will have to go for long stretches of the game without interruption. They must resist the temptation to reach in on their man for fear of being whistled for a foul. Both Preston Knowles and Peyton Silva are going to try and give them fits, but the Mountaineers' have to play heady. While Mitchell didn't offer much as a defender, he could keep talent on the floor when Truck and Joe were in trouble. Now, quick fouls could lead to a Pepper-West-Craig Carey backcourt, and if that doesn't terrify Mountaineer fans, I don't know what will.
- This game is huge in the standings. The Mountaineers must not get bogged down by the distractions caused by their departed comrades. While it may seem like a crisis moment when two players who counted on to make contributions are jettisoned, this team is still right where they need to be as far as contending for a NCAA tournament berth. At 4-2 in conference, all the ‘Eers need to do is split this roadtrip and pick up a win either tonight, or at Cincinnati on Saturday. Right now, WVU is one of the eight teams in the league with a winning conference record so it's not time for West Virginia fans to give up on the season. Not yet, at least.
I'm in band practice tonight, so I won't be live-blogging or recapping until much later. Hopefully everything goes the way we need it too.