Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- The holiday season may be over, but the Big East looks to be the gift that keeps on giving, as it serves up another tantalizing encounter when #12 Connecticut (12-1, 1-1) head to Morgantown to face #6 West Virginia (11-2, 1-0).
Connecticut cruised through their first 9 games, including winning the Paradise Jam by beating Miami and Wisconsin, came trough in a tight overtime game against Gonzaga, but handily lost their Big East opener at home to Georgetown, before getting back on track with a mauling of Rutgers over the weekend. West Virginia has picked up a pair of neutral site losses, in Las Vegas to Kentucky and in New York to Davidson, though the latter game was played without Alex Ruoff in the lineup. Since then, the Mountaineers have put up four straight blowout wins, including beating Ohio St. by 28 in Columbus and Seton Hall by 26 in South Orange.
Connecticut has one of the most interior-focused offenses in the country, taking just 23% of its shots from behind the arc, and making well over 50% of its chances inside. Connecticut does everything well offensively, but it shines in getting to the free throw line, something they’ve done very effectively all season. The Huskies have a good ball-control offense, and they will need it against Bob Huggins’ ferocious West Virginia defense, one of the nation’s elite units in forcing turnovers. Despite their general defensive strength, the Mountaineers aren’t a great match-up with Connecticut, as they aren’t great interior defenders and commit a lot of fouls. They will hold the Huskies perimeter offense, though, and it should be a very good battle on the glass.
West Virginia’s offense tends to more balanced between inside and outside shot selection than Connecticut’s, but most of its success comes from within the arc. The Mountaineers are below-average shooters from three and from the free throw line, but shoot over 50% from inside and are excellent offensive rebounders, getting back 45% of their own misses. Unfortunately for them, Connecticut are very good interior defenders, and it will be difficult for the Mountaineers to score. Still, West Virginia will be able to cause havoc on the offensive glass, and will not have to worry too much about turnovers, as the Huskies force very few. Connecticut send opponents to the line very rarely, so West Virginia will be hard pressed to match their opponents in that facet of the game.
Connecticut features an excellent inside duo in 6-7 Jeff Adrien and 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet. Adrien has made 55% of his shots and gets to the line often, while also being a strong force on the glass. Thabeet is a game-changer, shooting over 65%, a higher percentage then he makes from the line, averaging over 10 boards a game and leading the Big East in blocks. Thabeet was held in check in the Georgetown loss, but this is not an easy thing to achieve. Stanley Robinson’s role has stepped up as he returns to the team after a semester off, he’s a valuable forward who is working his way back into a starting role. Junior Jerome Dyson leads the team in scoring, but his percentages aren’t particularly good, shooting at 47.0 eFG%, and just 8 for his last 35. A.J. Price is a solid point guard, averaging nearly 5 assists per game, with a strong 2.0 A/TO ratio, and showing a good long distance shooting touch. Freshman Kemba Walker’s minutes have declined of late, but he’s remained an effective player, using his quickness to score inside the arc despite being only 6-1. Craig Austrie has also seen his minutes drop with Robinson’s return, he’s a useful but not particularly notable scorer.
Alex Ruoff is one of the Big East’s best shooters, and if West Virginia is to win this game he must surely find his stroke. Ruoff shoots over 40% from behind the arc on a large number of attempts, is well over 50% from two, and has scored in double digits in all but one of the Mountaineers’ games this year. With Joe Mazzula still out with a shoulder injury, only one other guard besides Ruoff gets a lot of time, in 6-2 Darryl Bryant. Bryant makes threes at the same percentage as Ruoff, but isn’t as good inside. Still, he’s an decent guard, but he has succumbed to turnover trouble in both of the Mountaineers’ losses. DaSean Butler is another player who can step out and hit the three, and the 6-7 senior is also an effective rebounder. Freshman Devin Ebanks still hasn’t got the hang of scoring at the collegiate level, but is the team’s best rebounder, though consistency is also an issue. Wellington Smith and John Flowers are good shot blockers and rebounders, and both are also solid inside scoring options. Freshman Kevin Jones is another player who can be counted on for a rebounding presence down low off the bench.
West Virginia should be a really good team in the Big East this year, but I really don’t like this matchup for it. The Mountaineers haven’t been great interior defenders and have sent teams to the line a lot, two things that spell trouble against Connecticut. They also don’t look particularly well-poised to take advantage of the Huskies’ weaknesses. Connecticut look like a more well-balanced team, but West Virginia are more highs and lows, among the best at the things they do well, but below average in their weaker areas. Balance should be enough to carry the day, but not by much.
Winner: Connecticut Margin: 2-6
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.