After controlling a game against the Oregon State Beavers (4-2), the Florida Gators will look to end their PK85 experience with a high against the West Virginia Mountaineers (5-1).
West Virginia reached this point in the tournament by losing its opening game to Purdue 80-68 before defeating a troublesome Portland State team 89-71.
Prior to the PK85, the Mountaineers had victories over Mount St. Mary’s, Penn, Morehead State and most notably Pittsburgh which, although in a tailspin, is still a formidable opponent and rival to the Mountaineers, and West Virginia was able to blast them 81- 56
West Virginia is in its 16th year of the Bob Huggins era, and its style of hard-hitting, no-nonsense, defense-first basketball has become synonymous with the Mountaineer brand. Huggins and the Mountaineers have had a disappointing season in which they finished 16-17 and 4-14 in the Big 12 conference game, but they are returning some of their better plays and are expected to finish in the top half of the conference and a decent result achieve seeds in NCAA tournament.
Florida recently had some luck against West Virginia as they went on a 4-game winning streak on Sunday, with three of those games coming in the last five years and the Gators winning in each of them, despite West Virginia often being favored. Of course, these two teams’ game pieces and one of the coaching staff have since been switched, but it’s interesting to note Florida’s recent success against the Mountaineers.
For years, Bob Huggins’ teams in West Virginia have been dubbed “Press Virginia,” a nod to the entirety of the court press, which they played for nearly 40 minutes, making for a distinctive style of play not really seen on any other high main program. While the nickname has stuck, it isn’t as accurate as it used to be, so slowly but surely the amount the mountaineers pushed has slowly gone down. There are a number of factors including more ball handlers on the floor than ever and how the game was managed, particularly in terms of hand checking, but for whatever reason the pressing has gone way down. The Mountaineers will continue to use it, deploying it on about 17% of their defensive possessions so far this season. It’s certainly something the Gators need to be prepared for, but it’s no longer the only element of West Virginia basketball that opponents need to be prepared for.
Even without pressing, the Mountaineers are very difficult to play and still make their opponents uncomfortable, but now the focus is on the half-court. They will aggressively deny a pass (think of the very athletic Florida State teams of recent years that gave the Gators problems) and will catch ball sieves to create chaos, much like a full-court press does, but only purely the half dish. They’re 12th nationally in forced turnover and for the first time this season, Florida’s ball security is really being put to the test.
West Virginia is led offensively by Erik Stevenson, who looks familiar from having played for South Carolina in the SEC a year ago. Stevenson is a methodical two-guard who doesn’t have the fastest first step, but he’s made a career out of being excellent in the midrange and using tempo changes and savvy screen reading to find his points. The problem with him throughout his career has been a lack of a consistent three-pointer, but he’s had a great start to the season, hitting 44% of his three-pointers in over four attempts per game, so the Gators are aware of that threat have to . As a fifth grader on his fourth team (Wichita State, Washington, South Carolina and now West Virginia), Stevenson has seen just about it all and plays the game like a graying vet.
Stevenson isn’t the only veteran in the backcourt, as he’s often joined by fourth-year point guard Joe Toussaint (transfer from Iowa) and fifth-year guard Kedrian Johnson. Both guards have similar play as shorter guards who are quick and physical, stabbing to the rim and breaking defenses before facing the shooters, or more specifically – throwing them into a big one.
West Virginia’s offense is all about their post players getting their work done early and making space so by the time they get the basketball it’s an easy reverse layup or dunk, deep catches on the rim to achieve. They’re constantly pressurizing the defense with flex and backscreens to easily catch big men and that’s going to have to be a big emphasis for the Gators, who were bowled by those actions from Xavier who were able to score free points generate when the Gators got mixed up increasing their coverage.
Jimmy Bell is West Virginia’s most dangerous tool in this flex-screen offense as he’s 6ft 10″ tall and weighs 285 pounds, meaning if he seals his defender it’s game over. He will bring sheer strength and physicality to his duel with Colin Castleton who must try to protect him without fouling. Of course, it’s often guards who put up flex screens for Bell when trying to force switches, and those switches the Gators have to avoid to keep players like Kyle Lofton, Trey Bonham, and Myreon Jones from having to guard him on the Block.
Tre Mitchell, a 6ft 9in transfer from Texas, isn’t the prototypical Bob Huggins tall – meaning he’s not an athletic bruise on the inside, but he has great offensive talent and footwork and that means he doesn’t have to Catch it just under the hoop, he can get it on the block and still punish the defense. He’s also a three-point threat that should challenge Florida’s drop-pick-and-roll coverage.
This game will feature an interesting stylistic contrast between the Gators’ pick-and-roll offense and the Mountaineers’ physical ground-and-pound style. As with most matchups in college basketball, where there is a marked contrast in styles, whoever is able to better dictate the style of play is a major advantage.
Florida and West Virginia at PK85 takes place on Sunday, November 27 at 8:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN U.