The University at Buffalo is the new kid on the block Friday against one of college basketball’s tradition-rich powers, West Virginia University. It’s UB’s first-ever March Madness appearance. This is West Virginia’s 26th. WVU has reached the Sweet 16 in five of the last eight years and went to the Final Four in 2010. WVU greats include Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley and Rod Thorn. Coach Bob Huggins is the third winningest active Division I coach, behind only Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. Nevertheless, WVU has just one player on the current roster who has appeared in an NCAA Tournament game.
This was one of the fine coaching jobs in the Huggins’ 33-year career. He lost three starters from last year’s team but adjusted to his talent and adopted an aggressive pressing approach. The Mountaineers wear teams down with 40 minutes of full-court defense. They have a deep fleet of athletes who create havoc. It’s hard to run a play against them. In the half court, they have an array of traps. They have versatile big men who can trap and switch on the perimeter. The result: West Virginia is the top turnover-creating team in the country. In order to play that style, depth is required. WVU goes 10 deep. Guard Juwan Staten, coming off a knee injury, is the leading scorer. The 6-1 Staten, and 6-2 Jevon Carter lead the press, but nine guys have at least 25 steals. West Virginia doesn’t shoot that well and could struggle against a UB zone, if UB can get in a half-court game. Easier said than done. The big man in the low post is 6-9 Devin Williams, who is bigger and stronger than Justin Moss. It’s easy to imagine him getting Moss or Xavier Ford into foul trouble, which would be very bad for UB.
UB is a fun team to watch, starting with sophomore guard Shannon Evans. The Virginia native plays at a break-neck pace, penetrates the lane and attacks the basket. He makes an array of bank shots and lay-ins. Mr. Inside for the Bulls is 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior Justin Moss, arguably the most improved player in the entire country. Moss is a load inside, draws a ton of fouls and scores from all angles inside 7 feet. But he also has the quickness to take bigger defenders outside and hit mid-range jump shots. The Bulls essentially have two starting point guards in Evans and Lamonte Bearden, who has ridiculous ball-handling ability and slashes to the basket. The Bulls’ best three-point shooter is junior Jarryn Skeete. Senior forwards Xavier Ford and Will Regan do dirty work inside. Rodell Wigginton, a 6-5 swingman, is a defensive specialist and board-crasher. The big weakness against an elite foe like WVU is depth. UB is only 7½ players deep. (The eighth man is raw, 6-11 junior Raheem Johnson, who UB might need to play 12 minutes in the middle of a zone defense). UB has the ball-handlers to deal with WVU’s press. But will they wear down? That’s a huge worry.
Outlook: If these teams played 10 times, West Virginia would win seven. But UB could not have asked for a much better 5-versus-12 pairing, because the Bulls match up pretty well with the Mountaineers. We could easily see UB wearing down vs. the press in the second half, but we’ll jump on the upset bandwagon.
Prediction: UB 77, West Virginia 76.