West Virginia gets No. 3 seed in NCAA’s East Region
Brooklyn, New York is West Virginia’s destination after the Mountaineers were seeded third in the East Region of the much-watched, much-debated NCAA Tournament.
After thumping Texas Christian for a third time and then scratching out a one-point win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament, the Mountaineers lost a 10-point decision to Kansas in the championship game. Kansas was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the 68-team NCAA event that began this week.
The Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn will be the site of West Virginia’s first game on Friday, March 18, at 7:10 p.m. The opponent is 14th seeded Stephen F. Austin of the Southland Conference.
The Lumberjacks hope their pressure defense is as hard to cope with as is the spelling and pronunciation of their home site in east Texas. Nacogdoches is the home of the ‘Jacks, whose slogan is “Axe ’em.”
Winners now of 20 straight games, the Lumberjacks have not lost a game since late December of 2015. This is the school’s third straight appearance in the NCAA’s so-called Big Dance. In 2014, Stephen F. Austin upset Virginia Commonwealth in the second round.
The record has only five losses, but one of those defeats came in Waco to Baylor of the Big 12 in the season opener. Baylor drilled the Lumberjacks, 97-55. West Virginia owns two regular season wins over Baylor.
The other four losses were to Northern Iowa, Tulane, Arizona State and Alabama-Birmingham.
There are 13,000 students attending Stephen F. Austin.
Even though its most-used style of play is a fullcourt pressure defense, the Lumberjacks don’t often get involved in non-stop, back-and-forth games featuring a ton of points. And they don’t often see the sort of pressure defense that West Virginia will show them. A critical difference between the two teams is the quality of depth each possesses.
West Virginia will have at least nine players shuttling in and out in Brooklyn. Guards Jaysean Paige and Tarik Phillip don’t even start and they are two of West Virginia’s leading scorers. Bob Huggins didn’t play Brandon Watkins or Teyvon Myers in the tournament loss to Kansas, but Devin Williams was much more effective than he had been in weeks, scoring 31 points and making 13-of-15 free throws.
Stephen F. Austin will be one of the smallest teams the Mountaineers have seen. There is only one starter standing 6-foot-7 and the reported catalyst of the team is 6-foot-4 Thomas Walkup, a player receiving publicity for his beard and 17.6 points a game average.
Only seven players have been trusted much by third-year coach Brad Underwood and Jared Johnson is the most effective player off the bench with his 6.2 scoring average in 11 minutes of playing time.
Against West Virginia, point guard Trey Pinkney will be cast in a leading role against the constant pressure he will face. Pinkney scores only 2.7 points a game and doesn’t shoot much at all.
The Mountaineers seem healthy enough, and now that they have lost a game Huggins may return Jonathan Holton to the starting lineup in place of Nathan Adrian.
Awaiting the winner of the ‘Jacks-Mountaineers game on Sunday will be the winner of the Notre Dame vs. Michigan-Tulsa survivor.
Should Notre Dame outscore its opening round opponent, it would probably want a racehorse tempo when seeing West Virginia’s press. The Fighting Irish generally use 10 players and don’t mind trading baskets with anybody just to get a withering scoring pace in place.
The Mountaineers won two games in last year’s NCAA event.
In last Saturday’s conference championship game loss to Kansas, West Virginia made 13 percent of its three-point shots but did make its free throws behind Williams’ stellar showing.
Williams eventually fouled out of the Kansas game. Holton usually finds himself in foul trouble.
Any free-flowing, scoreboard busting game against Notre Dame would need Williams now that Irish center Zach Auguste (6-foot-10) has been lively and scoring in bunches. Notre Dame is a team with overall size and can even find a 6-foot-7 reserve who makes three-pointers from afar.
But the Mountaineers must get past the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks of the little-known Southland Conference to continue playing.
Depth . . . or the lack of . . . should decide the West Virginia vs. Stephen F. Austin game . . . and hopefully have the ‘Jacks back in Nacogdoches before anyone has learned how to pronounce the city or spell it.