By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
March 24, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – With Truck Bryant out for the remainder of the season with a broken foot, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has a decision to make: use the five-forward lineup he employed briefly this year or start junior Joe Mazzulla at point guard in Bryant’s place for Thursday night’s game against Washington.
Huggins said Wednesday afternoon he’s not sure what he’s going to do.
“We’re still trying to figure out which is the best direction to go,” Huggins said.
Bryant broke his foot during yesterday’s practice in Morgantown, but he said his foot had been bothering him during the Missouri game on Sunday as well the following day.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” Bryant said. “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.”
If Huggins chooses to keep Mazzulla in his present role, that means he could start 6-foot-7 junior John Flowers at forward and slide Da’Sean Butler to point guard, or have Casey Mitchell start at shooting guard.
The five-forward lineup was successful in wins over Ole Miss, Seton Hall and Marquette in late December before the Mountaineers suffered a 77-62 loss at Purdue on Jan. 1.
Whatever Huggins chooses to do, he is confident that Mazzulla can give him 30-plus minutes of action Thursday night against the Huskies.
“I don’t know if he can go 40, but I think he can go 35,” said Huggins. “He seems like a guy that the team has a lot of confidence and faith in,” added Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. “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.”
That may be the case, but having one man down is not ideal against a streaking Husky team that comes into Thursday night’s game winners of nine in a row and 14 of their last 16 games. Washington is averaging nearly 80 points per game, and boasts one of the best one-two punches in college basketball in 6-foot-6 senior forward Quincy Pondexter and 5-foot-8 sophomore point guard Isaiah Thomas, who combine to average almost 37 points per game.
Six-nine junior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, a native of London, England, has come on strong of late, scoring at least 8 points in 15 of his last 16 games and averaging 12.4 points and 7.5 rebounds over his last 13 games.
However, Pondexter is one of the best scoring small forwards in the country with 17 20-point games to his credit this year. Huggins says Pondexter can score many different ways and from many different areas on the floor.
“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 also knows Pondexter well, the two having played together for Team USA during the World University Games last summer.
“He’s a very good player,” said Butler. “He’s athletic and he can shoot the basketball. Pretty much the only thing can stop him is if he has a bad night. We need to do what we do as a team and stay to our schemes and we’ll be fine.”
Huggins believes Washington is one of the best transition teams he’s seen this year. The Huskies got 23 transition points in its 80-78 first-round win over Marquette, overcoming a 15-point second half deficit against another outstanding transition team.
“It’s not that difficult to run off of makes, and I think if you look at their film, they get it out of the net and they’ve got tremendous team speed,” Huggins said. “They really run the floor and we’re going to have to get back in bunches. We can’t be all scattered out.”
As was the case last Sunday against Missouri, Thursday’s game against Washington is going to be another test of wills. West Virginia is going to try and make it a half-court game, trying to keep the score in the 60s, while Washington wants to push the tempo and make it a much faster game.
The Huskies are averaging 83.5 points per game in their 26 wins this year and just 69.4 points per game in their nine losses. On the flip side, the Mountaineers are giving up an average of 63.5 points per contest, with Missouri’s 59 points being the most scored against the Mountaineers during postseason play.
Romar said Wednesday that the slower team can usually dictate the tempo of the game.
“Unless you have just superior, superior athletes to the team you are playing against, in most cases if they want to slow it down it’s a little more difficult to get them to go up-tempo than for you to keep your tempo,” Romar said. “We’re going to play the way we play, and if the game is in a half-court situation, we have to be able to perform.”
“Both teams are going to try and come out and play their games,” added Pondexter. “We know that they have the ability to get up and down in a fast tempo, as well as slow it down and run some offense. We don’t know yet. We just have to get out there on the floor and see which teams’ game plan and strategies work best. They know ours and we know theirs so it’s going to be a battle of wills.”
Washington (26-9) is making its third trip to the Sweet 16 in eight seasons under Romar, while West Virginia (29-6) is making its fourth Sweet 16 appearance since 2005, and the second in three seasons under Huggins, now 78-29 at WVU.
Tip time is scheduled for 7:27 p.m. with CBS televising the game (Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas). MSN’s pregame coverage begins with the Coliseum Countdown at 7 p.m.
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