It's the eve of the NCAA tournament. In my house, that puts this night somewhere around Christmas eve in the hierarchy of holidays. As a West Virginia Mountaineer fan who grew up during the days of WVU's time in the Atlantic 10, I'm always amazed when it's March and the ‘Eers are still playing. Last March they kept playing and playing and playing - it was like a dream. Can that happen again? Doubtful, but here's what will be going through my head just after noon tomorrow when the Mountaineers square off with the Clemson Tigers:
What's at stake? Everything! This is the tournament, people. This is where players go from anonymity to super-stardom. This is the road to the championship, but most importantly: it's win or go home. The Mountaineers face a quick trip back to Morgantown if they lose, and these five seniors know it. If they win, the likely outcome is another date with Kentucky, whose shocking defeat was the Mountaineers' highest point last season. I, for one, am extremely nervous about the prospect of that matchup. The law of probability tells me that won't happen two years in a row, despite the fact that Kentucky is an entirely different team than they were last year. Either way, it's an enticing match-up for folks in the Mountain State.
What's Clemson bringing? The Tigers are led onto the court by a dynamic tandem of guards, Demontez Stitt and Andre Young, just the sorts that have given the Mountaineers fits this season. That said, the Mountaineers' tough man-to-man defense should jam up Clemson's cutters. The Tigers can crash the boards, but West Virginia has been much improved in that department lately. The principal issue for the Mountaineers will be keep Clemson's guards out in front of them, and only let them shoot challenged shots. If that happens, the Mountaineer Defense should control the court.
Are the Mountaineers' problems the same as all season? Yep. Scoring and smart offense are the Mountaineers' Achilles heels. West Virginia had been playing really good basketball before a letdown in the Big East tournament. In getting beat by Marquette, WVU went nine minutes without a field goal in the second half. That just can't happen in the tournament. Just. Can't. Happen. The Mountaineers have come out on top in nearly every game where their offense didn't disappear. Let's hope this is one of them.
Can the Mountaineer guards lift this team to victory? If the Mountaineers are going to go deep into this tournament, they need Joe Mazzulla, Truck Bryant and Casey Mitchell to score. Mazzulla needs to put the ball on the deck to create for himself and free up outside shots for Mitchell and Bryant. Then, of course, those two have to hit some of them. Mitchell hit two huge threes in a win against Louisville, so you have to imagine that the senior is brimming with confidence. Bryant, not so much. The shooting slump he's endured this season has been epic, but has shown moments of breaking. Hopefully that comes sometime in this tournament. While Mazzulla's been scoring the ball much more of late, his most important task is making the offense run. If he can make that happen, this team can surprise some people in this tournament.
Who's doing the dirty work? For the ‘Eers, it's going to have to be their front court. In the late season win against Louisville Kevin Jones broke out with the kind of game most WVU fans had been hoping for all season long. If Jones can occupy space in the paint and score the basketball, then things are looking up. John Flowers can be counted on to rebound, block shots and lock down the opposition's best player. In this tournament, he'll do all those things but the Mountaineers will need a couple buckets out of him as well. Deniz Kilicli has been an enigma this season, but with some great inside play he could be one of the tournament's breakout players. Unfortunately for the Big Turk, in order to do that he's going to have to rebound and defend with the best of them. Jamming the middle and staying out of foul trouble are the goals of all three Mountaineer big men, and for WVU to beat anybody, they're going to have to do that.
I'll be reprising my lucky habits of last season and will be watching the game whilst enjoying a hot dog at Gene's in South Park. Let's do this again Mounties, shall we?