After a week long break for finals, the West Virginia Mountaineers (6-3) return to action this afternoon when they take on the Rhode Island Rams (4-3) at 1:00PM EST on CBS Sports Network as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. The Rams are first in a three game stretch before the Mountaineers kick off Big 12 conference play on January 2nd against the currently undefeated Texas Tech Red Raiders.
West Virginia will be meeting their former Atlantic 10 Conference brethren for the first time since 2004, when they faced the Rams in an NIT tournament first-round game in Morgantown. The two programs battled it out every year from 1981 until West Virginia left the A10 for the Big East Conference in 1995, with the Mountaineers currently holding a 20-12 series advantage.
Led by first year head coach David Cox, the Rams are trying to continue the success they had under current UConn Huskies head coach Dan Hurley, in which they made it to the NCAA Tournament Second Round in consecutive years. The Rams are currently sitting at No. 82 in the RPI standings with the 49th hardest schedule, and No. 120 in the new NCAA NET rankings that were put into effect this season.
The Mountaineers are currently at No. 101 in the NCAA NET rankings, and No. 118 in the RPI with their strength of schedule coming in at No. 122.
Rhode Island is led on the court by a pair of juniors that could spell disaster for the Mountaineers - 6’8” forward Cyril Langevine and 6’3” guard Jeff Dowtin. Langevine currently leads the country in offensive rebounds per game (5.14) and is the lone Atlantic 10 Conference player averaging double-digit rebounds per game (11.3). In addition to his rebounding prowess, Langevine is also averaging 15.7 points per game through the Rams’ first seven contests.
Dowtin, the Rams’ top scorer from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, has played a team high 245 minutes this season, and has turned the ball over just nine times in that span. He leads the team with 3.9 assists per game, giving him a 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Through his first two seasons at Rhode Island, Dowtin was the only Division I player in the country with more than 250 assists and less than 65 turnovers.
Rhode Island’s backcourt is rounded out by sophomore guard Fatts Russell, who is averaging 12.4 points and 1.9 steals per game.
Fundamentally, this game seems like a nightmare matchup for the Mountaineers with an opponent that dominates the offensive boards and doesn’t turn the ball over. Fortunately for West Virginia, the Rams have struggled to put points on the board through their first seven games, averaging just 69.4 points on 40% shooting compared to the Mountaineers 81.1 points per on 44% from the field.
West Virginia enters the game having won five of their last six games, including a 69-59 win over the rival Pittsburgh Panthers last Saturday. While the box score read mostly in the Mountaineers favor, there was one glaring statistic that stands out - West Virginia turned the ball over a season-high 26 times. West Virginia was able to counter that by outrebounding the Panthers 41 to 33, thanks in part to an outstanding showing by Sagaba Konate off the bench.
Konate, who has struggled with a nagging knee injury through the first portion of this season, seemed to return to form last Saturday, setting the West Virginia school record for career blocks (191) with a seven-block performance against the Panthers. West Virginia currently has Logan Routt listed as the starter in Konate’s spot in the pre-game notes, indicating the 6’8” junior will most likely come off the bench early in the game just as he did against Pitt.
Outside of Konate’s reemergence last Saturday, the Mountaineers continue to struggle with guard play, but seem to be somewhat close to getting the pieces together. Beetle Bolden had his best outing of the season against the Panthers with a season high 18 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. 6’7” junior guard Jermaine Haley has given Bob Huggins valuable minutes off the bench, and appears to be someone the future Hall of Fame head coach has some level of confidence in the JUCO transfer.
If West Virginia wants to continue their upward trajectory, it’ll take Konate returning to the Sags we know and love from last season and the Mountaineer backcourt being able to pass the ball without turning it over at an alarming rate.
ESPN BPI: West Virginia 76.9%
West Virginia is 119-31 in non-conference regular season games under Bob Huggins, and 289-150 all-time against current members of the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Mountaineers are favored by 7 points, according to VegasInsider.com, with a total set at 144 points.
With Konate looking like his old self last week against the Panthers, it appears the Mountaineers have their dominating monster back down low rather than outside trying to force shots from beyond the arc to impress NBA scouts. If the guards can show some improvement, I’ll feel a lot better
There’s hope for this team after all. Today’s game is the perfect opportunity to get a good out-of-conference win to continue building chemistry and momentum before things get tough in the new year.
Keep an eye on the turnover situation, but I believe the Mountaineers will look much improved after the week off.