The West Virginia Mountaineers welcome in an old familiar Big East Conference foe, the No. 15 Connecticut Huskies, Wednesday night at 7:00 for the Big East-Big 12 Battle, and will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
UConn is its fourth season under the direction of head coach Dan Hurley. The Huskies sit at 8-1 on the season, notching a quality win over the Auburn Tigers in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis before Michigan State handed them their first loss of the season in the semifinals.
“They’re really good,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. “They’re athletic as can be. They remind me of some of the teams in the past.”
“Danny’s got a really good team,” continued Huggins. “They’re deep. They’re so athletic. They can score multiple ways. They got a lot of guys that can score. They really defend.”
UConn’s production in transition has pushed them as one of the top-scoring teams in the country, averaging 85.9 points per game.
“I think they’re as good as transition team as I’ve seen in quite a while. They’re really good in transition. They really get out in run, they fill lanes, they finish,” stated Huggins.
The Huskies rank near the top nationally in rebounding at fifth, snagging 44.4 rebounds per game.
“They’re a really good rebounding team, and that’s their whole team - it’s not a few guys. They all go rebound and keep balls alive,” said Huggins.
Defensively, Uconn is holding its opponents to 62.6 ppg on 37.2% shooting from the field. Additionally, the Huskies are averaging 8.6 steals per game and are second in the country in blocked shots at 7.7 per game.
“They’re really good defensively,” said Huggins. “They don’t give up a whole lot of penetration. They’re so long and athletic. They get their hands on balls, and whether they actually steal them or they deflect where somebody else steals them. They make a lot of good things happen for them.”
UConn is down two starters. Adama Sanogo, considerably one of the best post players in the country, averaging 15.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg, and Tyrese Martin, a blue-collar win and then some who averaged 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds, are both out for the next several weeks with injuries.
However, in the first game in both their absence against Grambling, junior forward Akok Akok and freshman guard Jordan Hawkins combined for 25 points and nine rebounds.
Huskies senior point guard RJ Cole averages a team-leading 16.3 ppg along with team bests 4.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
“He can get them in offense, he can score, he defends, he’s a really good rebounder for a six-foot-one guy, and he, to me, from the outside looking in, he’s the guy that runs the show,” said Huggins. “He’s the guy that makes everything happen. He’s the guy making sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
For West Virginia, Huggins is concerned with his squad more than anything else, stating his group is “struggling.” Additionally,
“[I’m] Trying to get them to throw it to the team that has the same color shirt they have on,” said Huggins. “They’re struggling with that - they’re throwing the ball around - the turnovers. We don’t rebound it. Other than a couple of guys, we haven’t made shots - we haven’t made free throws," before asking, "Do you want me to keep going?"
Leading scorer guard Taz Sherman averages 21.0 ppg, good enough for second in the Big 12 Conference. The only other Mountaineer to average double figures is guard Sean McNeil (12.0 ppg), who missed Saturday’s game versus Radford is day to day with a lower back injury.
In a limited role, Pauly Paulicap has provided energy off the bench and gave a spark to the Mountaineers with his hustle in the win over Radford Saturday. The DePaul transfer has seen his minutes increased over the last three games from 6.8 to 10.3, so has his production, averaging 6.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in the last outings, up from 2.0 ppg and 2.8 rpg.
“He’s been really active. He’s been, without a question, our best inside guy. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it - he’s been our best guy. He’s been our best guy in the games, but he’s undersized,” said Huggins.
West Virginia will be looking for offense outside of Sherman whether McNeil plays or not. Forward Jalen Bridges is third on the team in scoring, averaging 8.5 ppg. He’s shown glimpses of being the player the Mountaineers need to compete for a Big 12 title but has only hit double figures twice with 18 points in the second game of the season against rival Pitt and 11 in the loss to Marquette at the Charleston Classic. But, according to Huggins, “he hasn’t flipped the switch yet.”
Huggins also noted he wished his Mountaineers were a little better at this time and hopes they will continue to improve.
West Virginia is 6-16 all-time versus UConn. West Virginia took the last meeting 78-68 over the seventeenth-ranked Huskies in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship game on Nov. 23, 2014.
The Mountaineers are 1-1 in the Big East-Big 12 Battle. The Mountaineers won at Georgetown in 2020 and lost at St. John’s in 2019.
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