NEW YORK -- Before the tip of West Virginia's second-round matchup with Notre Dame at the Big East Tournament on Wednesday night, I had three questions I wanted answered. First, could Notre Dame keep West Virginia and its length off the offensive boards? Second, what kind of performance would the Mountaineers get from freshman Devin Ebanks in his hometown? Third, was West Virginia's point-guard play, -- or at least its offensive initiation -- good enough to compete with the Big East's and nation's best over the next few weeks?
The answer to the first question came swiftly and harshly -- no, sir. West Virginia only shot 35 percent (43.8 eFG) in the first half, and yet the Mountaineers still scored 36 points on 31 first-half possessions because the Irish had no way to get the ball back. West Virginia regained almost as many of its misses (13) as Notre Dame did (14). We knew the Irish wouldn't be able to turn West Virginia over. Whether in a passive zone permissive man-to-man, Notre Dame forced just two turnovers and had no points off of WVU giveaways.
"At the end of the day, the offensive board just killed us, and it hurt us in Morgantown," said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey of the 20 offensive rebounds his team permitted in a game where the Irish were out-rebounded 52-32. They only shoot some 30 percent [actually 36 percent] and you score 74 points, but the backboard has been an issue with us at different times."
The first half really meant the game in West Virginia's 74-62 win over Notre Dame, and the dominance on the defensive end of the floor was even greater than on offense. The Irish, after all, are not unaccustomed to giving up well more than a point per possession. So WVU's 1.16 PPP performance wasn't far out of line. On offense, though, the Irish were futile, unable to hit shots and unable to get the ball back when they missed.
West Virginia has the length and athleticism to bother Notre Dame's shooters. Bob Huggins can put athletic freaks Ebanks, Wellington Smith and Kevin Jones on the undersized Luke Harangody inside, and players like Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff have the length to frustrate ND's shooters Ryan Ayers and Kyle McAlarney. That added up to a terrible first-half shooting performance -- 25.9 percent (31.4 eFG). Notre Dame was also unable to get back any of those wayward chucks, corralling just two of the misses and capitalizing on neither second chance.
"In the first half, it was hard, hard to get entries with their length," said Brey. "[It] bothers you on the backboard, and it bothers you in the passing lanes."
After that first 20 minutes, it's a bit harsh to call the second half a mere statistical necessity, but the result was hardly in question once WVU went into the locker room at halftime with a 36-18 advantage. Notre Dame did cut the lead to as few as seven points with three minutes left, but there was really no point at which West Virginia appeared to be threatened.
WVU's eight turnovers and Notre Dame's six second-half 3's and 23 second-half points from Harangody allowed the game to tighten, but West Virginia was clearly the class team throughout, even as it hit just 12-of-36 2-pointers. The Mountaineers used the 3-pointer to keep its distance, hitting four-of-six in the second half, 11-of-20 for the game.
Ebanks makes presence known: He didn't light up the scoreboard, but Ebanks was the most influential player on the court on Wednesday night. The freshman from Long Island City in Queens made sure his return to the Five Boroughs didn't end without leaving an imprint.
Ebanks was particularly aggressive on the glass, grabbing twice as many rebounds as anyone else on the floor -- 18. He also led the offense with his passing delivering five assists, most on passes from either the top of the key or the free-throw line. WVU used his length to penetrate the zone with passes and allow the Mountaineers clear looks over and through it.
Ebanks didn't have a superb shooting night, hitting on just 3-of-11 attempts, but he could get his shot within 10 feet of the basket whenever he wanted to. On other nights, those shots will fall and even gaudier scoring lines will follow.
It's a testament to Ebanks' importance to the team that he played more minutes than any other Mountaineer. Bob Huggins trusts him to handle the ball and kept him in there for 37 minutes, and Ebanks rewarded his coach's trust by controlling the defensive glass for the majority of that time. Ebanks will be a pro -- perhaps after next season, perhaps sooner -- but until then, he's sure to blossom into one of the most versatile and talented players in the conference.
Bryant gets an incomplete: As for West Virginia's point-guard play, what could I learn? Defense is optional this year in South Bend, which is why that 8-10 conference record is no scheduling fluke but a pretty accurate reflection of a fatally flawed team. Bryant wasn't forced to do anything that made him uncomfortable thanks to the Irish's permissive defense.
Unlike in previous games, though, Bryant did play most of this one, seeing 35 minutes of run. In a loss to Cincinnati in late February, Bryant was notably absent down the stretch as his teammates frittered away late opportunities to pull out the win. Bryant ended up with a nice line on Wednesday -- 17 points, 4-of-7 on threes, four assists to one turnover -- but he wasn't called upon to general the offense. Alex Ruoff, Da'Sean Butler and Ebanks are the three guys tasked with making sure the offensive runs smoothly, and Bryant is a point guard in positional designation only.
"He stayed in the game a lot longer as far as past games, because he was doing a lot of things right today -- he scored very well," noted Butler. "He just did all the things, basic, correctly and stayed good. That's all I can say."
That's about all there way to say, and Butler put it very well. His muted praise is telling.
Pittsburgh's team defense may give us a better indication of whether Bryant has the chops to run an offense deep into March now, but it's pretty clear that Huggins will not sink or swim with the performance of his freshman. Ruoff has his own thoughts about the quarterfinal matchup with Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
"We got to man-up -- they're a physical team," said Ruoff in reference to the Panthers, who swept West Virginia this season. "We got [in] a lot of foul trouble at their place and kind of opened the game up. We got to match their physical play...limit our mistakes and match their physical play."
I guess the senior is thinking about Pitt's physical play. Bryant is surely aware as well that Thursday's test will be far different and more physical one than Wednesday's.