#18 Notre Dame vs. West Virginia: Wednesday's Preview

    
February 22nd, 2012
With Tim Abromaitis out for the year with a torn ACL, #18 Notre Dame (19-8, 11-3) had the look of a team destined for the NIT or another non-NCAA postseason tournament as their young players got acclimated to bigger roles. But that's all changed in Big East play as Mike Brey's Fighting Irish are not only surviving but thriving, and the possibility of earning a double-bye in the Big East Championship remains on the table. Notre Dame looks to move to 15-1 at home on Wednesday night as they host a West Virginia (17-10, 7-7) squad that is 1-4 against Top 25 teams this season.

Bob Huggins has one of the favorites for Big East Player of the Year in Kevin Jones (20.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg), the only player in the conference currently averaging at least 20 points and ten rebounds per game. The Mount Vernon, NY product does a lot of his damage in the mid-range and post areas, and while he can step out and knock down the three his 28.8% mark for the season suggests that the senior is better served to do the majority of his work inside of the arc. Alongside Jones in the paint is the muscular Deniz Kilicli, who is a handful in the paint. WVU averages 14.5 offensive rebounds per game, and if the Mountaineers can approach that number they'll be in good shape despite being on the road.

Even with Abromaitis the Irish weren't going to be the type of team that pushes opponents around in the pain, but Jack Cooley has improved a great deal since the beginning of his career. His scoring average has increased by more than eight points from last season to this, and he's nearly tripled his rebounding average. That's how you take advantage of increased playing time, and Cooley isn't alone in the frontcourt either. Scott Martin (8.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is a versatile forward who can have an impact in multiple areas within the course of a game, and he added 12 points to Cooley's 21 and 12 line in the first meeting. 

Both teams are young on the perimeter but it's been Notre Dame's backcourt that's shown more maturity throughout Big East play. Eric Atkins has played very well in his sophomore campaign, leading the team in scoring at 13.0 and ranking second on the team in assists. The assist leader is none other than freshman Jerian Grant, a 6'5" guard also averaging 12.9 points per game and leading the team with a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Add in Patt Connaughton, who knocked down six three-pointers in their comeback win over Villanova, and Alex Dragicevich and you've got a group of guards who are going to be even better than they have been with more experience.

The same can be said for West Virginia's backcourt, but they're led by senior Truck Bryant. Bryant's had a good year, most notably going off on Providence in the Mountaineers' overtime win over the Friars, but he couldn't get the shots to fall in the first meeting with Notre Dame. While he did dish out eight assists with just one turnover, Bryant went scoreless and missed all six of his shots from the field. WVU can ill-afford a similar performance in South Bend if they're to win. The youth is supplied by freshmen Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds, two guards who will be a handful for opponents in the future. Hinds racked up 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting in the first meeting.

West Virginia's played ten games against teams in the RPI Top 50 this season, winning three. A fourth win coming on the road would do wonders for their profile, and in order to do so they have to find a way to get to the foul line. WVU was 1-for-3 from the charity stripe in Morgantown compared to 10-for-14 for Notre Dame, and the Mountaineers were called for just one more personal foul (12-11) than the Irish. Jones and Kilicli will need to set the tone inside, and if they can get Cooley and/or Martin in early foul trouble the chances of leaving South Bend with a win improve greatly. 

Also of note on Wednesday is Wyoming's trip to #24 San Diego State, where the Cowboys will look to put their at-large chances on life support. Larry Shyatt's done a fantastic job of rejuvenating the once-moribund program in his return to Laramie, but at this point the profile doesn't look tournament-caliber. If anything the Pokes have an interior presence in Leonard Washington who can make some things happen against SDSU, who hopes to have Jamaal Franklin back on the court after he missed Saturday's loss at Air Force with a sprained ankle. It was clear just how important Franklin is to the Aztec attack, and if he's limited (or unable to go) that would help open things up for Wyoming's Paco Cruz and Luke Martinez. 

In the Big East USF has a golden opportunity as they visit #2 Syracuse. Few believe Stan Heath's team is for real despite ten conference wins, and the quality of those victories combined with a less than stellar non-conference slate has them staring at tough odds with regards to make the Field of 68. A win at the Carrier Dome would change all of that, but clearly beating Syracuse is easier said than done. The Orange seem to have a different player step up every night, be it a starter (Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Fab Melo or Brandon Triche) or a reserve (C.J. Fair or Dion Waiters). If the Bulls can avoid turnovers and settling for too many deep jumpers they can compete.  

And in the Big West, the conference's most important rivalry going takes the national stage as UCSB visits Long Beach State. A win would wrap up at least a share of the regular season title for the 49ers, who are currently 12-0 in conference play and looking to rebound from their loss at Creighton. Casper Ware, Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson lead the way for Dan Monson's team, and they dropped the hammer on the Gauchos in their first meeting of the season. James Nunnally was held in check in Santa Barbara, and he'll have to be much better alongside Orlando Johnson if UCSB is to have any shot of winning. A win over The Beach would provide a nice boost heading into the conference tournament, but keep in mind that the Gauchos lost both regular season meetings last year before knocking off LBSU in the Big West tournament final.   

Top 25 Games
7:00 PM South Florida at (2) Syracuse (ESPN3)
9:00 PM (5) Kansas at Texas A&M (ESPN2)
8:30 PM (6) Michigan State at Minnesota (BTN)
8:00 PM Rutgers at (10) Marquette (ESPN3)
7:00 PM West Virginia at (18) Notre Dame (ESPN2)
8:05 PM (19) Wichita State at Illinois State
10:00 PM Boise State at (20) UNLV (CBS SN)
7:00 PM (22) Temple at La Salle
7:00 PM North Carolina Central at (24) Indiana (BTN)
10:30 PM Wyoming at (25) San Diego State (The Mtn.)

NCAA Division I Games
6:30 PM Nebraska at Purdue (BTN)
7:00 PM Army at Holy Cross
7:00 PM George Mason at Northeastern (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Delaware at Towson (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Houston at Marshall
7:00 PM New Hampshire at Maine
7:00 PM Colgate at Lafayette
7:00 PM VCU at UNC Wilmington
7:00 PM Bowling Green at Akron
7:00 PM Ohio at Buffalo
7:00 PM James Madison at Drexel (ESPNU)
7:00 PM Dayton at Duquesne
7:00 PM Northern Illinois at Eastern Michigan
7:00 PM St. Bonaventure at Fordham
7:00 PM Old Dominion at Georgia State
7:00 PM Campbell at High Point
7:00 PM Virginia-Wise at Longwood
7:00 PM Boston University at UMBC
7:00 PM Lehigh at Navy
7:00 PM Richmond at Saint Joseph's
7:00 PM Ole Miss at Tennessee (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Central Michigan at Toledo
7:00 PM Ball State at Western Michigan
7:00 PM Hofstra at William & Mary (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Cal State Bakersfield at NJIT
7:05 PM Appalachian State at Citadel
7:30 PM Morgan State at Coppin State
7:30 PM George Washington at Charlotte
7:30 PM Central Arkansas at Nicholls State
8:00 PM Georgia at LSU (ESPN3)
8:00 PM Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (ESPN3)
8:00 PM East Carolina at Memphis (CBS SN)
8:00 PM South Carolina at Vanderbilt (ESPN3)
8:00 PM UTSA at Texas A&M-CC
8:00 PM TCU at Air Force (The Mtn.)
8:00 PM Stephen F. Austin at Lamar
8:00 PM Texas-Arlington at McNeese State
8:00 PM Bradley at Northern Iowa
8:00 PM Sam Houston State at Northwestern State
8:00 PM Texas State at Southeastern Louisiana
8:00 PM Tulane at SMU
8:05 PM Southern Illinois at Drake
8:05 PM Indiana State at Missouri State (ESPN3)
9:00 PM Texas Tech at Iowa State (ESPNU)
9:00 PM UCF at Rice
9:00 PM Southern Miss at UTEP (CSS)
10:05 PM UC Riverside at Cal State Northridge
11:00 PM UC Santa Barbara at Long Beach State (ESPN2)