INDIANAPOLIS - If West Virginia beats Duke tonight in the national semifinals, the Mountaineers aren't likely to do it the same way they beat the Blue Devils two years ago.
A 20-rebound advantage? Not likely.
Yes, West Virginia is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The Mountaineers rank No. 10 in the NCAA statistics.
But Duke is No. 12. The Blue Devils have outrebounded four NCAA tournament opponents by an average of more than 11 per game. But here's the number that is most revealing: Duke is 28-2 this season when outrebounding an opponent. Which is more impressive, the fact that the Blue Devils have won 28 of those games or that they have held a rebounding edge in 30 or 38?
As good as West Virginia is on the boards, the Mountaineers have held a rebounding edge in only 25 of 37 games.
When West Virginia beat Duke 73-67 in that NCAA tournament game in Washington two years ago, the Mountaineers' edge on the boards was a whopping 47-27. Joe Alexander and Joe Mazzulla each had 11 rebounds, while Duke's leader was "team.'' The Blue Devils got twice as many rebounds (eight) on missed free throws and missed shots tipped out of bounds as any individual had that day.
"This year the difference is it's a complete opposite. Rebounding was the reason why we lost games that year. And rebounding is the reason why we win games this year,'' said 7-foot-1 Duke center Brian Zoubek, who played just two minutes as a sophomore the last time the teams met. "I mean, rebounding this year has been great. It's kept us in a lot of games. That, combined with our defense, is going to give us an opportunity to be in the game at the end of the game.''
Duke's deficiency on the boards two years ago was so apparent that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins simply told his players that if they rebounded like crazy they would win, and that rebounding against that Duke team was not much of an issue. It was essentially a group of 3-point shooters without much size or toughness under the basket.
"It's a little bit different being that they're a lot more aggressive on the boards this year, especially offensively,'' said WVU's Da'Sean Butler, who had eight points and five rebounds in 19 foul-plagued minutes during that 2008 game. "Zoubek and Lance Thomas and [Kyle] Singler do a great job of just attacking offensive guards. For us to be successful, we need to neutralize that, make sure we don't let them get to the offensive glass as much as they usually do. Coach said they're the best on the offensive glass that we played all year, so ...''
Thomas, who was a 6-8 sophomore starter limited to just one rebound in the 2008 game, is counting in this game being much different on the boards.
"I look at it like this: We're a completely different team. We've grown, especially since that loss to them two years ago,'' Thomas said. "Once you get an experience where you don't feel like you performed as good as you can in a certain aspect of the game, I mean, I took it personal. We got killed on the boards.
"Ever since then I've always tried to become a better rebounder. We always play against teams who supposedly have more athletic big guys than we do. At the end of the game, we usually outrebound them. I think rebounding is a mindset. I feel like some of it is physical. If you don't have that mindset to go get that ball, you're not going to get it. I feel that's the main thing we have. We have a mindset we can go get the ball and everything else will take care of itself.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.