5-West Virginia vs. 13-Bucknell
Approx 2:45 p.m. Thursday at KeyBank Center
The last time the NCAA Tournament was in Buffalo, UConn started its championship run here as a 7 seed. While they might not be quite as big of underdogs, the fourth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers just might be primed for a Huskies-like run.
Coach Bob Huggins’ team is a favorite of the analytics community, ranking in the top five in both the BPI and KenPom.
“Press Virginia,” the Mountaineers’ relentless press defense, is a throwback to the “40 Minutes of Hell” run by Arkansas in the 1990s. Huggins doesn’t just want teams to play at West Virginia’s pace, he forces them to. The result was a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a third straight trip to the Big Dance.
The goal now is to make it past the Sweet 16. That starts against Bucknell, which is looking for its first NCAA Tournament win since 2006.
West Virginia led the NCAA in the regular season in defensive turnover percentage, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Mountaineers forced more turnovers than any other team from a power conference in the past 15 years. Even though they’re not a great shooting team, the Mountaineers rank 15th in the nation in scoring, because so many of their looks are easy ones that come in transition as their suffocating defense comes up with steals.
Huggins uses 10 players for at least 10 minutes per game, sending waves of fresh bodies at the opposing offense. Junior guard Jevon Carter leads the Mountaineers in points, three-pointers, assists and minutes.
A key injury to watch is that of second-leading scorer Esa Ahmad, who sat out the final road trip of the season because of back spasms.
The Patriot League champions have six regulars who shot at least 45 percent from the field and five players who shoot 39 percent or better from three-point range.
Junior center Nana Foulland, the Patriot League player of the year, shoots a sparking 62 percent from the field and blocks 2.1 shots per game on the other end of the court. His free-throw shooting is a big problem, though, at just 55 percent, and part of an overall theme for the Bison, who rank 260th in the country in free-throw shooting at 67.9 percent. Seven players for Bucknell shoot less than 70 percent from the stripe.
Another issue is one-and-done possessions. Bucknell ranks 266th in the country in offensive rebounding, and 308th in steals percentage on defense, so they aren’t making many easy buckets.
Are Bucknell’s guards up to the task of dealing with the constant pressure they’ll face? If so, the Bison can shoot the ball well enough to threaten an upset. If not, the Mountaineers should easily advance to the second round.
Prediction: West Virginia 78, Bucknell 67.