Date: Saturday, March 7th
Time: 9:00 p.m. EST
Site: WVU Coliseum (14,000) in Morgantown, W.Va.
Series History: UofL leads 6-2 (3-1 in Louisville, 1-1 in Morgantown, 2-0 neutral)
Last Meeting: UofL 69, West Virginia 63 (Jan. 31, 2009 in Louisville, Ky.)
National Rankings: UL No. 6 AP, ESPN/USAToday (3/2)
Officials: Bob Donato, Ray Perone, Tim Higgins
It has come down to this. The Louisville Cardinals (24-5, 15-2) will be playing for at the very least a share of the BIG EAST regular season championship. And as we all know by now, a win, coupled with a Pitt victory over No.1 Connecticut, would give the Cardinals the title outright. The Cardinals have played like the road is their home in the conference this season, and are nearly perfect against unranked conference teams in recent years. Louisville has won 16 of its last 17 games against unranked conference opponents. On the road this year they are 7-1 in conference, with the only blemish being the South Bend Slaughter. Since, Louisville has won six strait and have shot at least 54 percent from the field in four of those six games. The Cardinals are also shooting better from behind the arc during the streak, making 70 of their last 138 3-point attempts.
The battle for Big East Player of the Year will be an interesting one. Although Terrence Williams struggled some in midseason with a wrist injury, he is arguably the best all-around player in the league. While the leaders are Pitt’s DeJuan Blair, UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet, Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody and Marquette’s Jerel McNeal, Williams has to get some consideration. He is in the top 10 in the league in rebounding, assists, steals, defensive rebounds and assist-turnover ratio. For his senior campaign he is averaging 12.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 2.1 steals per contest.
Earl Clark, coming off a career high 27 points against Seton Hall, leads the team in points (13.7) and rebounds (9.0). Clark needs just 25 points to become the Cardinals’ 60th career 1,000-point scorer. UofL is second in the nation to North Carolina (62) in all-time career 1,000-point scorers.
West Virginia (21-9, 10-7) is playing for a better seed come Tournament time. “If we do on Saturday what we need to do and get 11 wins, with the schedule that we’ve played, not only should we be in but our seed should be pretty good,” coach Bob Huggins said. The Mountaineers, winners of five of their last six games, clinched eighth place in the BIG EAST Conference with a victory over DePaul on Wednesday, which gives them a bye in the first round of the Tournament.
Junior forward Da’Sean Butler (17.4 ppg) and the Mountaineers only senior, guard Alex Ruoff (16.3 ppg), are the top two scorers for West Virginia. Freshman forward Devin Ebanks averages 9.6 points and a team-leading 7.3 rebounds, while junior forward Wellington Smith has come on strong as the season has progressed, especially as a shot blocker. He blocked three shots in Wednesday’s game and has had at least one blocked shot in 15 consecutive games. Although only 6-7, Smith has become one of the premier shot-blockers in the Big East, ranking fourth with 1.7 blocks per contest.
In their January meeting, Louisville’s Jerry Smith scored 20 points, burying 4-of-5 three point goals, and Terrence Jennings added a then season high 13 points for the Cardinals. After West Virginia led 12-10 eight minutes into the game, UofL went on a 23-3 run over the next six minutes to take a 33-17 lead on their way to a 69-63 victory. Da’Sean Butler led the Mountaineers with 23 points.
Louisville’s BIG EAST Tournament scenarios goes something like this: Should Connecticut win at Pittsburgh on Saturday, UConn would earn at least a tie for the league championship and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. If that happens, Louisville could still earn a tie for the title with a victory at West Virginia. A Pitt victory over Connecticut would give both teams a 15-3 conference record and allow for Louisville to either claim the BIG EAST Conference title and No. 1 seed with a victory at West Virginia, or tie for the league championship with a loss to WVU.
Louisville will be either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in next week’s BIG EAST Conference Championship, to be played March 10-14 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Cards have earned a bye to the quarterfinals on the third day of the event. The No. 1 seed will play at noon on Thursday against the winner of the No. 8 vs. 9/16 winner. The No. 2 seed will play at 7 pm. on Thursday against the winner of the No. 7 vs. 10/15 winner. Seedings will be determined after completion of play Saturday.
Bobby E’s Gamebreaker: DEFENSE!!!
Louisville’s defense gave freshman point guard Truck Bryant fits the first time these teams met back in January. Preston Knowles and Andre McGee (whose 22nd birthday is on Saturday) are crucial to Louisville’s success. The defense is set up to do more than just harass the offense and pressure it. Speaking on McGee, coach Rick Pitino told The Courier-Journal: “Most teams we play have great point guards, and we need to wear those guys out physically and set a precedent physically, and that’s what Andre does…We’re just trying to wear out the opposition. (McGee) happens to be in superb shape. He doesn’t wear out.” They are going to need, not only to pressure the Mountaineers into turnovers again, but they will need to withstand the Mountaineers ‘D’ as well in a blood-thirsty WVU Coliseum and take care of the basketball.
ESPN College Gameday will make its first ever trip to Morgantown Saturday and the game will be televised nationally on the four letter network with Dan Shulman (play-by-play) and Dick Vitale (color) calling the action. Erin Andrews will be in attendance, uh, YUMP! You can also hear the game broadcast on WHAS (840 AM) by Paul Rogers (play-by-play) and Bob Valvano (color) or on SIRIUS satellite ch. 127.