WVU has a plan for UConn's Walker
MORGANTOWN - For the first game in the final month of the regular season - a time when the drama rises with the stakes - there's little Big East Conference suspense attached to West Virginia's men's basketball game tonight against No. 16 Connecticut.
The Mountaineers (18-10, 9-7 Big East) and the Huskies (21-7, 9-7) enter in a tie for seventh place as they try to secure a top-eight seed and a bye in next week's Big East Tournament. One will leave the Coliseum tonight in a tie for seventh and the other will be in a tie for eighth.
Cincinnati (22-7, 9-7) plays at Marquette (18-11, 9-7) tonight with the winner joining the WVU-UConn winner in seventh place and the loser joining the other loser in eighth entering the final game of the regular season.
"It's hard to tell what's going to happen when the ties come into play, but two teams are going to be 10-7 and two teams are going to be 9-8," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "Obviously, you'd rather be 10-7."
And just as obviously, whether WVU emerges in seventh or in eighth before Saturday's regular-season finale vs. No. 11 Louisville depends on how WVU handles UConn's Kemba Walker.
The 6-foot-1 junior point guard from the Bronx, N.Y., is averaging 22.8 points per game and Huggins said "he very well could be the national player of the year."
"We're going to try some things, but he's really good," Huggins said. "What we can't let him do is go crazy, but we can't let him get his and help everyone else get theirs, too."
Walker also averages 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals in 37.2 minutes per game - and he plays 1.6 more minutes per game in Big East play. He's led the Huskies in scoring 22 times, including the first 18 games, this season.
UConn wasn't ranked in the preseason and was picked 10th in the Big East's preseason poll. The Huskies returned only Walker and center Alex Oriakhi, an all-rookie pick last season, from the group of last season's regular players. Yet those two have led a group that features three freshmen and a sophomore among the top six scorers.
"Look at what he's done," Huggins said. "He and Oriakhi are the only two mainstays they have left and they play a bunch of freshmen, but the freshmen are having really good years and he's aided them in having good years."
Walker, a childhood friend of WVU junior guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant, averages 15.5 points, six rebounds and two assists per game in two wins in his career against the Mountaineers.
He's shooting 35.2 percent from 3-point range this season (56-for-159), but does a lot of his damage - and creates a lot of opportunities for his teammates - on drives. He's made 157 baskets from 2-point range. No one on WVU has more baskets than Kevin Jones' 142.
"He hits outside shots, he's got a great in-between game and he does a great job penetrating and creating contact on the way to the basket," said WVU guard Joe Mazzulla, who figures to guard Walker throughout the game.
"You've got to take away one or two of those during the game and not let him hit outside shots and not let him get to the free-throw line. You've got to make him work hard and grind it out."
WVU has had difficulty defending drives, whether it's in transition or in half-court offense, in recent games against Villanova, Syracuse, Pitt and even Sunday against Rutgers. The Mountaineers have been hurt by the first and second shots and Oriakhi (10.1 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) trails only Syracuse's Rick Jackson among conference players in rebounding and offensive rebounding.
"It's all about dribble penetration," Mazzulla said. "If you give up dribble penetration they're able to slide in and get offensive rebounds so much easier and that counts for points in the paint. We've got to keep Kemba out of the lane."
The Huskies, including Walker, have experienced and discussed problems against zone defenses this season. WVU has played a matchup 2-3 zone at various point this season and had favorable results with it against the Huskies in the past few seasons.
The Mountaineers also played the 1-3-1 zone for the first time in a long time against Rutgers on Sunday and Mazzulla said they've worked on it enough to think about using it, if necessary, against UConn.
"It all depends on the tempo of the game and how well we're controlling the tempo," he said. "The main thing is making it tough for him to get the ball. I don't think he's going to want to run all over the court to get the ball. They're going to try to get the ball in his hands and if we can make it tough for him to catch it and limit his touches, that plays a big part in whether or not we have success against him."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.