By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The way West Virginia shooting guard Casey Mitchell sees it when West Virginia takes the floor today in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse in what might be one of the bigger regular-season games of the season for both teams is that this will be nothing short of bare-knuckle fighting.
“Syracuse is one of the top four teams in the conference,” Mitchell said on Saturday after WVU’s offense came to life against DePaul’s porous defense and scored 82 points in an 11-point victory. “I really don’t know how they have six losses. They are like one of the biggest, most athletic teams in the conference and have a great zone.
“They just gave games away,” Mitchell continued, “just like we did. It cost them six losses. Well, we’re not trying to get our sixth loss and they’re not trying to get their seventh loss in the conference. It’s going to be a brawl.”
Syracuse is 20-6 but 7-6 in the Big East while the Mountaineers are 16-8 and 7-5 in the conference but looking at really tough final couple of weeks of league play before the conference tournament.
Most people don’t think of Syracuse in physical terms, considering that they play that 2-3 zone of Jim Boeheim’s, but it is a difficult zone to crack with all the subtle nuances he has been able to put into it over his Hall of Fame career.
To complicate matters, WVU had only one day — Sunday — to get ready for the zone, which is tricky.
“The toughest thing is we can’t simulate their length,” Coach Bob Huggins said. “Craig Carey, Mike Carey’s son, he tries really hard, but he’s not Ricky Jackson, you know what I mean.”
Carey is a walk-on who usually plays the role of an opponent but with Syracuse, there’s just no way he can be as long and quick and athletic as the players’ Boeheim has.
But don’t think for a minute that WVU won’t be ready for the zone.
“You work on it all year. It’s not like we haven’t worked on it,” Huggins admitted. “We have to really take a hard look at how people score. Louisville made a lot of shots [in beating Syracuse on Saturday, 73-69.] They got a lot of good shots early.”
And it only helped some that DePaul, a pressing team, went to the zone on a couple of occasions and the Mountaineers handled it easily.
“It’s no secret what we have to do,” guard Joe Mazzulla said. “We got to get the ball in the short corner and in the middle against the zone and make shots.”
Making shots is the key.
“With the zone, you have to keep making shots. I don’t think he’s coming out of it, so you have to keep making them,” Huggins said. “That’s what Georgetown did. I saw the Georgetown game.”
The problem is that until the DePaul game, WVU had been in an awful shooting slump, especially among the players who need to hit from long distance against the zone, men like Mitchell and Truck Bryant and Dalton Pepper.
Hitting better than 50 percent, admittedly almost all of them layups, could boost Mountaineer confidence.
“It is good for everyone’s confidence going into Saturday’s game,” Mitchell admitted.
Mitchell, the Mountaineers leading scorer when he’s on the floor and not in Huggins’ dog house, hit four of six shots against DePaul, two tough shoots ands two 3s.
As important, perhaps, is Pepper’s ability to score coming off the bench. A non-entity early in the year, Pepper has been getting more and more playing time and playing better because of it in recent days, hitting three of six against DePaul while scoring nine points.
“Watching Louisville, they got them moving and overloaded on one side,” Pepper said. “That [gets] you someone wide open. I’ll just go out there and try to find a groove and be comfortable so I can help the team out.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.