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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at West Virginia

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The Hoos head to their western neighbor for a backyard battle.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at West Virginia Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the VCU game, how Virginia was pressed and trapped all game? Imagine that on steroids.

That’s what today’s game between the No. 15 Virginia Cavaliers and No. 18 West Virginia Mountaineers is going to be like. West Virginia plays one of the fastest paces and forces turnovers better than anybody else in the nation.

Against the Rams, the Hoos won the transition battle by an astonishing 18-0. A similar performance this time would simply be unbelievable. These two teams have matched up the past two seasons, with the Hoos winning 70-54 at the Barclays’ Center in 2015 and the ‘Neers winning 66-57 last year in Charlottesville.

That game last year was close, with WVU pulling away late for the relatively comfortable win. They were led in scoring by Jevon Carter, a 6’2” 200 SG. He’s a good shooter, at 34% for his career, but 38% over the past two years. He’s also a very good defender, and excels in this scheme. He leads the nation in steals, after finishing 7th a year ago (he’s 12th in steal rate right now and was #1 last season.) Carter also led the team in scoring and assists last year. He’ll see a lot of Devon Hall, one of few perimeter defenders around who has the quickness and strength to stay with Carter.

Up front, the ‘Neers are thin. Last year’s top big man, Nathan Adrian, is gone. Replacing him is a trio of youngsters. The top performer is Sagabe Konate, a 6’8” 260 pounder who can score inside but isn’t quite as mobile as WVU usually prefers their bigs. The other two are Lamont West and Wesley Harris. West and Harris are similar to Adrian in size and style, but are far behind where he was as a senior. West has been starting and seeing more run. He’s bigger and more of an interior presence.

Next to Carter on the wing is Daxter Miles. Miles is a slasher who can shoot it a little bit, but he’s just a 32% career 3 point shooter, and he’s made just 20% of his attempts this year. He’s also just a 60% career FT shooter, but he’s over 72% this year. Miles and Carter are the most active guys in the press with James Bolden in the mix as the third member of the wing. Bolden can flat out shoot the rock, making almost 47% of his 3s this year after about 45% last year. He’s also good on the press, though his small (6’0” 170 lbs) makes it tougher for him to work in those traps. He’ll often be the front man, pressuring the ball-handler and trying to force the ball to the sidelines.

That is main goal of WVU’s press. They’ll run some different looks of course, but generally speaking they want to trap the ball along the sidelines. It is important to keep the ball in the middle of the court. Sometimes that is difficult, because they cut off passing lanes and they work hard to stop the dribble. When the ball does move to the sidelines, the ball needs to move quickly either with the dribble or (preferably) with a pass up-court. A quick pass up-court often leads to a 3-2 fast break, and hopefully a dunk.

Because of the press, the Hoos will likely have at least three ball handlers on the court at all times. This means we may some lineups with both Nigel Johnson and Ty Jerome on the floor together. We may also see a lot of DeAndre Hunter because he can handle the ball but he’s also capable of guarding WVU’s 4s. Isaiah Wilkins is a strong ball handler for a big man, so he’ll be key in this one. I suppose that goes without saying, as Wilkins has been key for every game the Hoos have played over the past two seasons.

Wilkins may also need to score a bit more in this one. He has been scoring more this year, including a career high 19 against Rhode Island. That was a vastly different game that this one will likely be, but URI’s big men are similar to WVU’s. So the potential for a big game from Wilkins is there.

When the Hoos beat the Mountaineers in 2015, Anthony Gill had a big game, scoring 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. Almost all of those points were layups and dunks either off the offensive glass or in transition. Wilkins doesn’t have the same offensive game that Gill has, but he’s as good on the boards and perhaps even better in transition. Virginia should be able to get out and run a bit, and Wilkins would be one of the main beneficiaries of those transition opportunities.

If Virginia can get enough of those transition chances without getting caught up in WVU’s up-tempo game, it may be enough offense to overcome WVU’s outstanding offense. But if they have trouble with the press and turn the ball, they’ll give up too many easy buckets to the ‘Neers. The home-court advantage is also a big aspect because WVU’s press feeds off the crowd.

This Mountaineer team isn’t as deep as last year’s and probably isn’t as good. In fact, because of the lack of depth, they actually aren’t pressing quite as much as they normally do. Oh, they’ll still bring the press, but sometimes they’ll dial it back. At times they may just pressure the ball with a single defender or maybe two defenders. The thing is, however, that Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles are two of the better players in the nation and are just about capable of winning any game on their own. The Hoos will have to be smart with the ball and play tight defense without fouling if they’re going to come out on top.

The game tips at 7pm and will be televised on ESPNU.