West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins told his team how important the next two games are.
The 18th-ranked Mountaineers start the week against No. 15 Virginia (8-0) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Coliseum, followed up with the revival of the Backyard Brawl at 8 p.m. Saturday at Pittsburgh (4-4).
Both will not only affect where WVU stands in relation to the rest of college basketball right now, but also at the conclusion of the season.
“Like coach Huggs said to us yesterday, these two games might make or break our season right now because these are huge games for the RPI and for the end of the year if we want to get a good draw for the NCAA Tournament,” said WVU redshirt sophomore guard Beetle Bolden.
Virginia has been a force to be reckoned with, especially on defense, under head coach Tony Bennett. Bennett’s staple is the Pack Line defense, and his teams have experienced high levels of success in that system.
The Cavaliers have finished as the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense in three seasons under Bennett (2014, 2015 and 2017) and remain atop that category this year. Opponents are averaging 50.6 points per game against them, which is just below six points less than the No. 2 scoring defense in college basketball (Rutgers, 56.3 points allowed per game).
Only one opponent has reached 60-plus points in a game against Virginia, which were the 67 scored by VCU in a 76-67 Cavaliers victory last month. Four teams registered totals in the 40s or below, with Wisconsin — a Sweet 16 bunch a year ago — finishing with 37 points.
WVU knows getting past the Virginia defense is difficult, and is aware of what it needs to do to find success.
“What we’re going to have to do is penetrate and get those guys to help and kick it either for a 3 or a jump shot, and feed our bigs early and get them touches inside the paint,” Bolden said.
Last year’s meeting between the two teams saw WVU get past the stingy Cavaliers. It committed just eight turnovers and shot 45 percent from the field en route to a 66-57 victory in Charlottesville.
Bolden pointed to how important it was to surpass the 60-point barrier to beat a team like Virginia.
“I think we just got them guys to speed up and got them out of their game and we got the game to push up into like the 60s and 70s because they’re comfortable with their games being around the 40s or 50s,” Bolden said. “I think that was the difference.”
But the Mountaineers are impressed with Virginia’s offense, too.
Despite losing point guard London Perrantes, a Second Team All-ACC selection as a senior before going to the NBA G-League, there are still a number of talented scorers on the roster that make this team look similar to those of years past under Bennett.
One of those is sophomore guard Kyle Guy, who is averaging 16.6 points per game, while shooting 48 percent from the field and 46 percent from long range.
“They’re going to be about the same,” Huggins said. “(Kyle) Guy obviously shoots it really well. They don’t have an experienced point guard like they had a year ago, but they’re good.”
What sticks out about the Virginia offense is how it controls the pace of the game. It runs out most of the 30-second shot clock before putting up a shot attempt.
It executes in its offense system as well, connecting on 49 percent of its shots so far this season.
“But the reality is they control the game with their offense,” Huggins said. “I think what happens is you don’t want to go down and play defense for 30 seconds, come down and take a shot in five seconds, go back and play.”