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Who Must Syracuse Stop to Beat West Virginia?

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After obliterating San Diego State, Syracuse is onto the Round of 32, where Jim Boeheim and company face West Virginia. The 3-seed Mountaineers cruised past 14-seed Morehead State in the second round of the tourney.

The Fizz has already taken an analytically-based look at West Virginia, and for good reason. The Mountaineers are 10th in the nation in offensive efficiency, and 13th in offensive rebounding percentage (on average, they grab offensive boards on 35.6% of their possessions). However, Bob Huggins team is a lot more dynamic than just numbers can suggest.

The Mountaineers began the season 7-1. The only non-conference blemish was an extremely respectable 87-82 loss to Gonzaga. However, things became hairy around the new year, when center Oscar Tshiebwe announced that he would be transferring from WVU after a Big 12 All-Freshman team season in 2019-2020 (He eventually ended up at Kentucky). WVU lost three out of five games from December 22nd to January 9th, and it appeared that conference play without its big man.

However, an 88-87 comeback victory against Texas Tech galvanized the Mountaineers, who won six out of their next eight games. West Virginia was ranked as high as sixth in early March before losing to Baylor and Oklahoma State in the same week, and then bowing out of the Big 12 Conference Tournament to the streaking Cowboys.

So how did West Virginia take that massive step without Tshiebwe? It’s been a group effort, but two other players have emerged as options 1 and 1A.

Sophomore guard Miles “Deuce” McBride and forward Derek Culver transformed into All-Big 12 players. McBride upped his scoring average by seven points from a year ago. The Cincinnati native shoots 41% from behind the arc. He hit the game-winning three-pointer against the Red Raiders, and continues to be WVU’s big shot maker in crunch time. Culver stepped into the center role full-time and dominated down low, averaging a double-double. The junior recorded seven games with 14 or more rebounds.

West Virginia’s role players are also solid. JUCO transfer Taz Sherman has quietly put up consistent numbers coming off the bench (13.4 points per game, five games with 20+). Starting guard Sean McNeil shoots 38% from behind the arc on six attempts per game, and wing Jalen Bridges had an All-Big 12 Freshman team season. Forwards Emmitt Matthews Jr. and Gabe Osabuohien aren’t all that impressive statistically, but they’re the guys that do the dirty work, and Bob Huggins showers them with praise for just that.

However, WVU’s role players will not beat Syracuse by themselves. The Orange need to stop McBride and Culver first and foremost. Expect to see a lot of Jesse Edwards to keep Culver off of the offensive glass, and the zone to extend out towards the three-point line to prevent open looks for McBride (because once he makes one or two, he’s en fuego). Syracuse needs to focus on the Mountaineers’ stars to advance to the Sweet 16.

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