NIT First Round Essentials: WVU at GTown

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Old school Big East in a high school gym. Who says the NIT isn't cool?

Nobody really wants to play in the NIT.

Kids don’t grow up dreaming about the chance to prove themselves to be number 69, and workplaces all over America don’t grind to a halt to fill out brackets and watch the madness. Still, not everybody can make the NCAA Tournament (yet). So, either everybody can go home and watch the cool kids, or the time between NCAA games can be filled with some basketball and the chance to see some seniors who have worked hard for four years get one more moment on the court.

I’ll take it.

Former Georgetown coach Craig Esherick famously had a different opinion, rejecting a bid to the 2002 NIT. He cited the tournament’s request to force the Hoyas to play road games and his concern that his team would miss too much class time. In reality, Esherick, a man with a huge and voluble ego but with precious little talent, was angry that the NCAA Selection Committee "snubbed" his decidedly mediocre team.

Esherick took a good deal of heat over his fit of pique, and it was the first brick in the wall that led to his firing two years later. So, I guess you could say that the NIT matters.

This particular game has a bit of extra meaning. First, the Hoyas will host this game on campus in tiny McDonough Gymnasium, rather in their normal home of the sterile, corporate, and often empty and/or enemy fan infested environment of Verizon Center. This should lead to a much more fun and enthusiastic atmosphere that we normally see for Georgetown home games.

Secondly, the opponent is Georgetown’s old Big East rivals, West Virginia. When last seen two years ago, the Mountaineers were running full speed away from the Big East, announcing their intent to leave for the Big 12 immediately no matter what their contract said about a waiting period. These teams played a thrilling Big East Championship Game in 2010, won by West Virginia on a last second Da’Sean Butler shot after some questionable refereeing. So, these two teams should be able to play a lively game.

West Virginia has had a similar season to Georgetown, garnering some impressive wins (Kansas, Iowa St., Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas St.), mostly at home, and going 9-9 in a brutal Big 12. But, they are in the NIT because they did nothing in non-conference play, struggled away from Morgantown and lost bad games to Virginia Tech and Purdue.

The Mountaineers are a very good offensive team, ranking 23rd in the nation with 114.3 adjusted points per 100 possessions. This comes almost exclusively from being unbelievably good at avoiding turnovers. They have turned it over on only 14 percent of their possessions this season, good for sixth in the nation. They are also the sixth best team in the nation at preventing other teams from stealing the ball, which helps limit opposing transition opportunities.

They need the extra shots because West Virginia is not particularly good at making shots. While they are decent enough from three point range (38.4% percent) but are terrible inside the arc (46.7 percent). They have real problems inside, struggling to finish at the rim, failing to draw fouls, and performing poorly on the boards.

In addition, West Virginia is a very poor defensive team, where there lack of any effective big man hurts them. They allow teams to make 50 percent of their two point shots, give up offensive rebounds on 32.5 percent of missed shots, and just do not block shots. Their only defensive "talent" this season is "forcing" missed free throws. Teams have shot just 67.2 percent from the line against the Mountaineers this season.

West Virginia lacks an effective big man and will often go with three, or even four, guards. The main matchup problem for Georgetown would appear to be Mountaineer point guard Juwan Staten. He doesn’t shoot many threes, but he is effective at penetrating both to pass and draw fouls. The Georgetown backcourt of Markel Starks and D`Vauntes Smith-Rivera has struggled with good offensive guards this year, and Staten threatens to expose Georgetown’s season long problem with committing fouls. He does all this without committing turnovers, either.

Eron Harris is another guard who will be difficult for the Hoyas to defend. He is West Virginia’s best three point threat (42.6%) and is a very effective scorer who can also get to the line where he shoots 85.6 percent.

Terry Henderson has mostly functioned as a shooting specialist, but he isn’t as effective as Harris from out there at 36.7%.

Gary Browne is a defensive specialist who will probably be assigned to make Smith-Rivera’s night miserable.

Devin Henderson is, at 6’9", West Virginia’s only big man of note. He is a good rebounder and quite good at drawing fouls, so he could pose a challenge for Georgetown’s limited big men.

On paper, Georgetown should be able to score against the weak Mountaineer defense. But they could not score last week against a DePaul defense that is much worse, so that is hardly a guarantee of anything. Georgetown has to hit shots and get to the line. If Georgetown shoots a low percentage they will be failing to take advantage of West Virginia’s greatest weakness, and thus will stand a healthy chance of losing the game.

In particular, the Hoyas need to attack the basket with their guards: Starks, Smith-Rivera, and Jabril Trawick. That has been the strategy that has led to improved offense the second half of the season, and also the strategy that best matches up with West Virginia’s weaknesses.

The Hoyas need to score because they aren’t in a good position to stop West Virginia on the other end. Obviously, we cannot expect Georgetown to force many turnovers. The key, as it has been for much of the year, is how Georgetown’s front line plays on defense. Mikael Hopkins, Nate Lubick, and Moses Ayegba have generally been foul magnets and played poor interior defense all year.

If they get in foul trouble, send West Virginia to the line, and passively allow easy shots inside, the Hoyas are in major trouble. Those are weak areas for West Virginia, and the Hoyas cannot allow them to become strengths.

These are two guard heavy teams that have been plagued by poor inside play all season. If one team can step it up on the inside that squad will have an excellent chance of emerging victorious.

The winner of this game will either travel to Tallahassee to play Florida St. or host Florida Gulf Coast next week.

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