SYRACUSE. N.Y. —
West Virginia and Washington square off this evening in the first round of the NCAA East Regional in a game that is being advertised as a battle of wills.
More likely, it is a battle of won’ts.
If West Virginia won’t let Washington run, the Huskies won’t win.
If West Virginia won’t allow Washington to score 70 points, the Huskies won’t win.
If the Washington won’t let West Virginia slow the game down, West Virginia won’t win.
And, to be honest, it is as simple as that.
Yes, there are Xs and Os involved, to be sure, but the truth of the matter is that pace makes the race and in this race if Washington won’t be slowed down by a WVU defense that has found a way to turn teams that play like Indianapolis 500 race cars into amusement park bumper cars all season, the Mountaineers will be watching the Regional final on television from Morgantown.
Washington averages almost 80 points a game. West Virginia almost never scores 80 points in a game.
What’s more, WVU starting point guard Truck Bryant, who had been slumping badly lately but who is capable of putting up numbers, is out for the rest of the year with a broken fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” Bryant said Wednesday. “I switched shoes at halftime during the Missouri game, when I started to notice my foot was hurting. Yesterday, I just backed up. I didn’t even make movement, really, and backpedaled and I felt my foot pop.”
That puts a huge burden on Joe Mazzulla, who is known more for his defense than offense but who actually is slicker at setting up scores than is Bryant and who may make the offense more efficient than it has been.
One thing is in Mazzulla’s favor. Used sparingly much of the year because he was allowing his shoulder to heal, he should be able to go a long way in his Energizer Bunny style.
“I don’t know if he can go 40, but I think he can go 35,” said Coach Bob Huggins, speaking of minutes played.
Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar is taking the approach that WVU won’t alter much of what it tries to do because Bryant isn’t playing and Mazzulla is. He’s seen the films.
“[Mazzulla] seems like a guy that the team has a lot of confidence and faith in,” Romar said. “So I don’t know if there needs to be any adjustments. I do know that between (Devin) Ebanks, (Da’Sean) Butler and (Kevin) Jones they’re pretty good and those guys are still playing — and they’re going to be pretty effective.”
Besides, this isn’t about offense.
West Virginia wins with defense … period.
Washington may be a No. 11 seed, but it is no easy out.
They will enter Thursday’s night’s game with nine wins in a row and with 14 victories in their last 16 games. In their 26 victories this year they average 83.5 points a game and just 69.4 points per game in their nine losses.
Make note of that 69.4, for there is a terribly intriguing statistic about this WVU defense.
When it has held an opponent to 69 points or fewer it has not lost this season, which would seem to indicate that if the Mountaineers can keep Washington to fewer than 70 points, they can play another game this season.
Doing that will not be easy, considering that the Huskies possess a spectacular 1-2 punch in senior Quincy Pondexter, a 6-6 forward, and sophomore point guard Isaiah (No Relation) Thomas, a 5-8 ball of fire.
The two combine for 37 points a game, about the same as WVU’s Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith average.
Pondexter is an awesome talent.
“He’s a heck of a player and we’re going to have to do a great job on him,” said Huggins. “I think the thing that makes him so good is he scores in so many different ways. He can face you up and make jump shots, he can drive it to the basket either way, he can play in the post; he’s a terrific offensive rebounder. There are not a lot of things offensively that he can’t do.”
Butler is the most familiar with him, having been a teammate of Pondexter’s in the World University Games, a team that also featured Ohio States Evan Turner and Purdue’s Robbie Hummel.
In many ways, Butler and Pondexter are similar, both on and off the court.
“He’s such a funny guy,’’ Pondexter said when asked about Butler before coming to Syracuse. “He’s a good person on and off the floor. He’s done great things for that team this year. He’s so talented. He’s hit big shots for them and he’s a real leader.’’
“He’s a clown, too,” said a smiling Butler before leaving Morgantown on Tuesday.
On the court, the two are the focal points of their teams.
“He’s a workhorse. He does a lot of little things. You don’t see many talented players do that,’’ Butler said. “If he wanted to he could just sit out there and just jack up 3s and take a bunch of pull-up [jump shots] and get the same amount of points he’s getting now. But he does a lot of little things. He hustles, sometimes he guards the best player on the other team, he rebounds. He’s leading his team in a lot more than just points. He’s special.’’
And so is Butler, who does all of that plus handles the ball for the Mountaineers.
The big problem is that both deserve to play their way into the Final Four, but one of them won’t, which brings us back to where we started as it really is a battle of won’ts.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.