West Virginia-Syracuse: My Day in The Madhouse
We waited outside in the cold for three and a half hours, raced through the concourse with about a thousand other sprinting students frantically trying to get a seat, and by 10:45, I had found my seat in the second row of the West Virginia student section (called the "Mountaineer Madhouse") for the most hyped regular season game in recent memory on Saturday against Syracuse.
As I was sitting before the game, taking some time to rest my legs and to let my toes thaw out a little bit, I couldn't help but think, "this game better be worth it."
And was it ever.
It was the first time in 50 years that two top 10 teams squared off in Morgantown, but it was the second time this year that the Mountaineers had faced a top 10 team. In their New Year's Day game against Purdue, WVU came out flat and got beat in a game that ESPN's Jay Bilas described as "a lot worse than the score indicates" by a score of 77-62.
That was definitely not the phrase that would have been used to describe Saturday's contest with the Orange.
It was back and forth the whole way between two of the best teams that the Big East Conference has to offer. Syracuse ended the first half up one, then early in the second half, West Virginia took a six point lead and Syracuse took the momentum back from the Mountaineers and had a ten point lead late in the game, and it appeared to be over.
But then, the Mountaineers decided to start making shots and brought it back to the one point deficit that they would end up losing by.
After a game like that, all Mountaineer fans should have come away thinking a lot of positive things, as well as some negatives that will always lurk their head after a loss.
I guess we'll go ahead and get the griping out of the way so we can just get done with it.
How a team starts a game can sometimes indicate how they are going to finish it.
Like in their games against Notre Dame and South Florida, West Virginia stumbled out of the gates. The only difference on Saturday was that they were able to keep the Orange in check and not let them jump out to a big first half lead like they did in the other two games.
WVU came out of the gates shooting 3-15 in the first few minutes, and a lot of those misses came on layups and short range jumpers that if they had gone in, could've allowed the Mountaineers to put an early chokehold on the Orange and possibly change the outcome of the game. Of these 15 shots, 14 were taken by Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, Da'Sean Butler, and Wellington Smith with the other one taken by Truck Bryant.
Of the 14 shots that those four took (they went 3-14), they had six opportunities to get second chance points and only came away with points on one of those occasions when Butler pulled down a rebound and kicked out to Smith for a jumper.
Speaking of players who are struggling, I think it's safe to say that Casey Mitchell has officially won the Dee Proby Award given to the player with the most hype that he couldn't live up to when the season came around. The former junior college Player of the Year started the season off with a bang, but after three straight double digit games, Mitchell has failed to reach that plateau and has ended up falling below freshman Dalton Pepper, who looked very good against Syracuse.
The thing that he was touted for when he committed to Morgantown was his top-notch shooting ability and his shots are just not falling up to this point. While for some reason I'm still holding out hope that the shooting will come back around for him, that's not his only problem.
The major staple on every Bob Huggins' team in his coaching career has been the tough man-to-man defense that they play. This is not one of Casey Mitchell's strong points. More than once on Saturday, Mitchell got abused by Syracuse guards on defense, making him even more of a liability on the floor.
It was like in high school when the bench warming backup point guard on the JV team has to go up against the starter on the varsity team in practice and the starter can just do whatever he wants to do with the ball. Take a guess at which one Mitchell is.
Until he gets this stuff straightened out, I can't see him, or even Jonnie West for that matter, getting off the bench unless it's a mop up situation.
Who could benefit the most from Mitchell not playing well?
In the past couple of games, it's been freshman Dalton Pepper, who I mentioned a little bit earlier. While Mountaineer fans thought originally that Mitchell would be the one to step in for Alex Ruoff this year, but over the past couple of weeks, Pepper has started to look more and more like the shooting guard who graduated last year.
Pepper has been shooting lights out, and has game that goes above the rim (he's deceptively much more athletic than you would think).
But enough of that, back to talking a little more about things that went on during the game.
I'm not one of those fans that is going to blame the loss on the officiating, because if you watched it you would know that it was equally bad on both sides, but the foul that was called on Joe Mazzulla with seven seconds left in the game was awful.
In case you didn't see it, after Truck Bryant made a free throw Syracuse was inbounding the ball with WVU in a full-court press. The Orange's Scoop Jardine, in an attempt to free himself from the fierce defense of Mazzulla hit him with a forearm and the two of them ended up on the ground, with Jardine on top.
Whistles blew and the student section erupted because, well, it had to be on Jardine. That was when Wally Rutecki, one of the officials, ran from across pointing at Mazzulla .
Just something I didn't quite understand about that was how in the world Mazzulla was the one that was pushed over, but was still called for the foul. That call changed the possible outcome of the game (Jardine hit one of the two free throws, making it a four-point game).
Another puzzling thing to me was the fact that once again, West Virginia had a ton of trouble solving Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone.
The way that the Syracuse defense works is that once that first pass is made, a guard and a forward come to the ball to make the trap. And that's where the Mountaineers would have some trouble, especially at the beginning of the game.
After making the first pass, we would most of the time look into the high post to Ebanks or Jones and Onuaku would be there to guard them and a few times they would end up just forcing one up, which is partly why they struggled so much to start it off.
With them coming over to make the trap right off the bat, it seems that it wouldn't be that tough to reverse to the other side where there would be openings because of where the rest of the defense has to move when they try to trap. But, we aren't the only teams that have had trouble stopping it, I mean it helped Boeheim win a national title and a lot of other great seasons.
But even with that suspect call at the end and all the trouble that they had solving the 2-3, the Mountaineers still had a great shot to win it, thanks to Truck Bryant.
Down 67-59, Bryant completely went off, scoring nine of his 18 points in the final 34 seconds of the game. It was the fourth straight game that Truck played well in, as it appears that he's getting back where he left off at the end of his freshman year when he was leading this team very well in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments.
Part of the reason that he's playing better I think is the increased role of Mazzulla. Since he's been playing more and more at the point, it gives Truck a chance to move over to the two, where with his shooting ability, he's able to make more of an impact in the game from a scoring standpoint, but it also doesn't make him have to make as many decisions that caused him to make a lot of mistakes and turnovers early in the year.
So, was it worth standing out there for as long as I did, definitely. Did the game end the way it should have? Well, based on the way WVU played, then yes. Like Purdue and Notre Dame, do I think the Mountaineers can beat the Orange if they have to play again come March?
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