Impressions: West Virginia and Cincinnati

The Big East has a lot of ranked teams this year, to say the least, and some believe that the conference will have as many as 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament come March.  While the debate will rage on about the true strength of the Big East, it is fairly certain that the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Cincinnati Bearcats will be two of the teams from the conference on the periphery of the conversation at the end of the season, trying to make their case that they are worthy of being included in the Big Dance.  This pair of unranked teams faced each other over the past weekend, hoping to improve their stock and take a step forward in the conference standings among their more formidable brethren.

It was a packed house at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati, as the fans turned out to welcome back Bob Huggins one more time.  Huggy hasn’t changed too much since his time in the Nasty Natty by all appearances, but the Bearcat program he left behind has certainly experienced a decline in stature.  The Bearcats have had some decent squads and some decent players come through since Huggins left in 2005, but have not made a trip to the NCAA Tournament since their former coach moved on (or more accurately, was moved on).

This year’s Cincinnati team has shown some promise of finally getting back to the postseason showcase, but a strong early season record is starting to look a bit misleading in the light of recent losses.  Saturday’s contest ultimately resulted in another loss for the Bearcats, only their fourth on the season, but likely a preview of things to come as Big East play rolls along.  Saturday’s final was a 66-55 tally in favor of WVU, a score that to some extent reflects the grind-it-out, ugly style that Huggins seems to have perfected.Of these two teams, West Virginia definitely has the better prospects for making some noise in the conference and earning themselves a tournament bid.  They’ve already shown an ability to win some big games, with victories over both Purdue and Georgetown.  Even more significant is the fact that in their six losses to date, the average margin of defeat has been just over six points, with the most lop-sided loss being a 10-point deficit to St. John’s.  The Mountaineers keep it close, and it gives them a chance in every game.  They’ll need to scrape for every point they can get, as 7 of their last 10 games come against the top 7 teams in the conference (not including the Mountaineers themselves), all of which are ranked opponents.

Joe Mazzulla is a scrappy senior point for WVU who remembers the Mountaineers past tournament success, but he'll be hard-pressed to lead the team to similar heights this year

Unlike Cincinnati, West Virginia is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, having made it to the Final Four last year before losing to eventual champion Duke.  However, this team is a far cry from last year’s squad.  They lost senior leader De’Sean Butler as well as talented sophomore Devin Ebanks, and with leading scorer Casey Mitchell sidelined due to an indefinite suspension for violating team rules, West Virginia has no primary scoring option on which to rely.  The team is a tough draw, but they aren’t going to shoot you out of the gym.  Instead, they piece together a motley assortment of players into a disjointed but reasonably effective unit.  They’re not cohesive, but they are gritty.  They won’t blow you out, but they may punch you in the mouth.  In other words, if you take them lightly, don’t be surprised to find yourself on the losing end as the final seconds tick away.

Forward Kevin Jones puts up solid numbers, but he isn't the same go-to guy that West Virginia has had in years past

The Buckeyes can certainly handle West Virginia.  We have superior scoring, superior size in the paint, superior athleticism, and most importantly, a team that seems to have gelled remarkably well this season, enabling us to play a variety of styles.  Against West Virginia, the key for Ohio State would be to pound the ball inside and take advantage of fast break opportunities whenever possible.  While West Virginia is a decent club, they did demonstrate a number of mistakes and sloppy plays against UC (see previous note about lack of cohesiveness), and Ohio State should be able to take advantage consistently if we push the pace.

If West Virginia is a bit disjointed in their style, then Cincinnati is truly the epitome of a “roll out the ball and play” squad.  There is little attempt made to run an offense when the Bearcats have the ball, and players frequently took it one-on-one for off-balance leaners in the lane during the game on Saturday.  Cincy was actually ranked at one point this season, but a look at their pre-conference schedule shows that perhaps their most significant victory came against cross-town rival Xavier.  Cincinnati has talent, but no discipline.  They have size, but it doesn’t have an impact beyond just clogging the lane and grabbing a few boards.

Yancy Gates is a monster, and could dominate a game if only the 'Cats got him the ball consistently

The Bearcats are more well-equipped to challenge the Buckeyes, especially with 6’9, 260-pound junior Yancy Gates to match against Jared Sullinger.  UC also has the athleticism to play tight man-to-man for stretches, and can knock down the three when left open, but they gave no indication of being able to sustain a solid performance for 40 straight minutes.  While recognizing that I would be a basketball mo-ron compared to these DI players, I feel comfortable saying that the Buckeye players have a much higher basketball IQ than the Cincy team.  With Ohio State, there is much more sense of timing and spacing, when to take the shot and when to pull it back and reset.

You could feel the frustration of many of the fans at Fifth Third Arena as they watched their team falter at home, and I almost ended up feeling bad for them.  Cincinnati’s home court has the potential to be a deafening, utterly explosive place to play, and it was incredible to think what it must have been like when Huggins was coaching there with top-ranked teams.  The arena is almost like an over-sized high school gym, with bleacher seats and relatively basic amenities.  Rather than coming out of tunnels onto the court, the teams come out of simple doors on each end of the floor when they leave their locker rooms.  The fans are genuinely rowdy, and the gym quickly gets warm from the commotion, unlike the drafty, multi-level mega-palaces at other schools that shall not be mentioned by name at the moment.

All in all, the game was a fairly sloppy, mistake-heavy affair.  While it is understood that WVU and UC don’t represent the cream of the Big East crop, as a sampling from the conference they did not strike fear into the the heart of a Big Ten fan who may be looking ahead to a matchup between another Big East squad and the Buckeyes come tournament time.