There's nothing like a meeting between old friends, and this is nothing like a meeting between old friends. Bob Huggins - as I'm sure you don't need reminded - was hated head man at UC before he parted ways with the school in less than mutually agreeable circumstances. He's back as the head man at West Virginia, running his same brand of aggressive, physical ball in the belly of the Appalachians.
Huggins has West Virginia flying right now. After starting the year at 73rd in the KenPom, they're up to 25th now on the strength of a 6-1 record. None of their wins has been particularly close, and their only loss is against a good Purdue team. Their opponent in common with Xavier is Florida. X beat the Gators by 7; West Virginia did it by 29.
This is a huge chance for a final marquee non-conference win for Xavier. Only UC - whose best win is against an abject Louisville team - and Southern await before Big East play swings into action.
Defense. West Virginia is 11th in the nation in forcing turnovers, and it's not a full-court approach so much as it's persistent, unrelenting ball pressure. They can pick up full and their guards usually pick up three-quarters, but it doesn't become a whole team thing until the frontcourt. It's tough sledding if you keep the ball, too; West Virginia is 38th in defensive EFG% and almost equally adept from inside and beyond the arc. They foul a lot and are bad on the defensive glass, but you're going to have to fight for every attempt.
Huggins gets a ton of credit for his ability to coach up a defense, but this offense is rock solid as well. They're 39th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. It's not just running out after turnovers, either; they're well below the national average in transition attempt rate. They're a very good two-point shooting team and solid from beyond the arc, albeit in few attempts. They're a little weak in ball security, but they get on the glass and to the line at solid but unspectacular rates.
|Stevenson keys the pressure for West Virginia and is a deadeye shooter from pretty much everywhere. He's not a typical pass first point guard at all.
|Johnson isn't a great shooter but he plays a lot because he's solid with the ball and excellent on defense.
|Matthews doesn't use the ball a lot, but he uses it well when he does. He's a very efficient scorer who doesn't force chances when they do come to him. He started at WVa, went to Washington, and then came back.
|Mitchell is a monster inside who can finish plays from the free throw line. He's not a great rebounder and turns the ball over a bit much for a big man, but he can really hurt teams inside.
|Jimmy Bell does the dirty work inside for this team. His rebounding rates are both above 20% and he's reasonably efficient on offense, but he fouls way too much to stay on the court.
Joe Toussaint plays so much that KenPom profiles him as West Virginia’s main point guard. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s very steady with the ball and won’t make mistakes. Seth Wilson is only 6-1, but he’s an incredible offensive rebounder. He’s a solid three point shooter in limited attempts as well. Mohamed Wague is like a younger Jimmy Bell. He’s big, aggressive on the glass, and fouls way too much. Kobe Johnson is 6-3, 210 and rounds out the Mountaineers who have played in every game. He only averages two shots per game.
-Is Xavier tough enough? In the pregame presser, Sean Miller said that "if you have to put a lot of blood and sweat" into answering this question, "you already kind of have your answer." There's nothing Bob Huggins likes more than a rock fight, unless you count going into hostile territory and silencing a hostile crowd. There's no question the Mountaineers will be up for this game; Xavier has to rise to the challenge for 40 minutes.
-Is Adam Kunkel good to go? Xavier isn't the same team without Kunk, as evidence by their inability to get it across the line against Duke and Gonzaga with him out of the lineup. He's back now, but concussions are notoriously fickle injuries to predict. His confidence on the ball and willingness to attack from everywhere gives Xavier an element that will be a perfect foil to West Virginia's defensive system. His availability and fitness may be the deciding factor in this game.
-Can Xavier control the ball? West Virginia forces the 11th most turnovers in the nation. Xavier turns the ball over way too much. If the Musketeers can keep the ball, they have a chance, because that’s what the Mountaineer defense is predicated on. Beat the pressure and West Virginia will foul and surrender three point looks.
- Don’t turn it over: Yes, that the same as the last question. It’s not possible to overemphasize how much Xavier needs to take care of the ball. Once they start turning it over, West Virginia will run away with it.
- Control the defensive glass: West Virginia wins by making it ugly. That means getting after their misses and getting second chance points. Xavier isn’t a good defensive rebounding team. They’ll need to crack down on that today. Jack Nunge could be a real key there.
- Get a bench performance: As fast as and aggressively as West Virginia plays, Xavier is going to need someone to step up and be useful off the bench. Whether that is Desmond Claude growing into his role, Kyky Tandy having a big game, or Kam Craft stepping into a bigger role, someone has to make up that gap. Dieonte Miles is big and athletic enough to compete, and Jerome Hunter has the mindset. Someone has to step up.