Three-guard lineup grinds on 'Nova
MORGANTOWN - And so it began on Wednesday for West Virginia's basketball team - The Grind.
After an early-season schedule that included nice wins over Kansas State and Miami and losses to No. 15 Mississippi State and No. 8 Baylor, the brutal schedule began kicking in at the Coliseum.
The Mountaineers won their (cough, cough) warmup game against Villanova 83-69 - against a program that's gone 30-8, 25-8 and 21-12 the last three seasons.
The rest of the Mountaineer schedule includes away games against No. 1 Syracuse and No. 9 Connecticut. It includes home games against No. 4 Louisville, No. 12 Georgetown and No. 14 Marquette. There's the home-and-away series against (for now) No. 22 Pittsburgh. There's the game in Charleston against a much-improved Marshall team.
On Wednesday, though, The Grind got off to a good start for WVU because of three grinders: Truck Bryant, Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds. Coach Bob Huggins went to the three-guard - basically the three-point-guard - rotation in the decisive part of the second half and found a winning combination.
Huggins was searching. Center Deniz Kilicli started, but with a bad hip. ("It's bad," he said afterward of the injury. "It hurts in the morning. It hurts if I don't get two, three treatments. It's a pain in the butt. But I knew I was going to play. It's not going to get worse. I just had to tough it out. I like doing that.") Kilicli also had some foul trouble. Kevin Jones had to go to the locker room with 19:30 left in the second half with a cut.
Big men Dominique Rutledge and Kevin Noreen weren't answers. Starter Keaton Miles had yet another sub-par performance.
The three grinders, however, brought Villanova (7-6) to a screeching halt.
Bryant had a super performance with 34 points on 12-of-23 shooting. It was the combination, however, that made the difference. Around the 12-minute mark, Huggins had the three on the floor to match up against the Wildcats' taller guards of Maalik Wayns (6-foot-2), Ty Johnson (6-3) and Dominic Cheek (6-6).
Bryant is the tallest of WVU's trio at 6-2.
"That was really tough," Hinds said. "They were way taller than us. But when the shot went up, we had to stay in there and box out."
It worked in that regard to the tune of 10 combined rebounds. But there were other benefits.
"We pass the ball better," Huggins said. "You saw kind of how stagnant we got whenever we didn't have those guys in. We just pass the ball so much better. And the key to attacking zones is you have to move the ball. Those three guys obviously move the ball better than other guys."
Villanova used some pressure and a 2-3 zone.
"We played defense, we rebounded the ball and we quickened the offense a little bit," Hinds summarized. "Got some easy buckets and Truck was good tonight."
Kilicli pointed to another statistic. "We got steals," he said. "I think that's why we won the game."
Indeed, the Mountaineers had nine steals and scored 24 points off turnovers. Villanova had four steals and six points off turnovers.
"We came out in the second half and did a good job," said the freshman. "We pushed the ball a lot today. We were rebounding the ball in the second half."
Of that height disadvantage? Browne shrugged.
"In the second half we played hard," he said. "We played good defense - me, Jabarie and Truck. We stopped their guards."
Enough, anyway. Wayns had 20 points, but on 7-of-19 shooting. Cheek had 20 on 8-of-15 shooting. Johnson had four points. Wayns and Cheek are juniors, while Johnson is a freshman. Browne and Hinds are freshmen.
"The freshmen played a huge role in our win tonight," Bryant said.
Bryant laughed when asked if he could have predicted a three-guard combo would prove the difference.
"That's rough," he said. "Because it's Big East play. But if you think about it, we're three guards who can guard anybody. We're physical - especially Gary. Gary is everywhere. Sometimes Gary plays too much defense."
WVU (10-3) was expected to win the game. The Mountaineers entered as 9-point favorites, ranked No. 33 in the Sagarin basketball ratings through games of Dec. 27. Villanova entered ranked No. 92.
But the West Virginia victory was interesting because of the way it materialized: with Kilicli hurting, with Jones injured and out for a spell - and with those three point guards grinding all at once.
Bryant winked and said to expect more of it as The Grind moves along.
"I think we'll do it a lot," he said. "I think Coach [Huggins] likes the way we get after it. We pick it up fullcourt and get after the other team on defense. I think we'll do it a lot."
It'll be something to watch as WVU moves along, starting Friday with a visit to Seton Hall for a 9 p.m. ESPN2 game.
"I told them," Huggins said, " 'Just 17 more, guys.' "
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.