Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

March 9, 2011

West Virginia opens defense of Big East title tonight

BLUEFIELD — The West Virginia Mountaineers won three games by a total of seven points to win the Big East Conference tournament for the first time in school history last season. 

Led by the heroics of Da’Sean Butler, the Mountaineers used that momentum to keep playing all the way to the Final Four, the first time that had happened since the days of Jerry West 51 years before.

They’re back, and will be trying to do it again.

West Virginia (20-10) enters on a roll, having won three in a row and four of their last five, with three of those wins coming against ranked foes Notre Dame, Connecticut and Louisville.

The Mountaineers will open Big East play tonight against the winner of Tuesday’s opening round late game between Marquette (18-13) and Providence (15-16). Tip-off is slated for around 9:30 p.m., and will be televised by ESPN.

West Virginia has played both clubs this season, losing at Marquette 79-74 on Jan. 1, and hammering the Friars in Morgantown 93-63 on Jan. 13.

Casey Mitchell leads the Mountaineers, scoring 14.3 points per game. He’s joined in double figures by Kevin Jones (13.1, 7.4 reb) and Darryl “Truck” Bryant (10.9, 3.1 ast), while John Flowers (9.6, 6.6 reb) isn’t far behind.

Joe Mazzulla directs the West Virginia offense to the tune of 4.1 assists per contest.

Jae Crowder, who averages 12.5 points and 7.2 rebounds for Marquette, had 29 points and eight boards in the win over West Virginia. Bryant led the Mountaineers in the loss with 25 points, while Jones had 17.

The Golden Eagles are led by Darrius Johnson-Odom (17.2 ppg) and Jimmy Butler (16.8).

Providence is paced by Marshon Brooks, who leads the Big East, averaging 24.9 points per game, but was held to 13 in the loss in Morgantown.

Vincent Council tallies 13.5 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds for the Friars, while Gerald Coleman (10.3) is also a double-digit scorer.

The winner of tonight’s game will play Louisville on Thursday, also at 9 p.m. All four of West Virginia’s potential games in the Big East tourney will start at around 9 p.m.

West Virginia, which finished with an 11-7 Big East mark, good for a tie for sixth place, hasn’t lost in their first game in the Big East tournament since 2006. The Mountaineers are 8-3 since then in the event.

•••

Conference USA

Unlike West Virginia, which is basically assured an NCAA Tournament bid thanks to 20 wins and one of the nation’s toughest schedules, Marshall must win the Conference USA postseason event to advance.

That will be a tall task, but Houston, which is the Herd’s opening round opponent today, was a seventh seed last season, won the tournament and advanced to the NCAAs.

Sixth-seeded Marshall (21-10) will play the Cougars (12-17) in the opening round of the C-USA Tournament today at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas. Tip-off is slated for 7:30 p.m.

These clubs played once this season, with Marshall winning at Houston 63-62 on Feb. 1.

Marshall, which hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 1987, hasn’t had much success in the C-USA event, winning once in six tries, that being an opening round win over Alabama-Birmingham in 2007.

After last Saturday’s 83-69 win over Central Florida, the Herd clinched just its second winning league mark since 2001, and Marshall was in the Mid-American Conference then. They’ve also got the third best ratings percentage index (RPI) in the circuit, trailing UAB and Memphis.

Leading Marshall is Damier Pitts (1.8 ppg), third team All-C-USA performer DeAndre Kane, who is averaging 15.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest, and Tirrell Baines (12.7 ppg, 6.7 reb.).

Marshall has won six of its last seven games, with the lone loss coming at Texas-El Paso last week.

The winner of today’s game will play UTEP (23-8) on Thursday in the quarterfinals, also at 7:30 p.m.

Houston has lost six straight and 11 of its last 12 games. That lone win was a Feb. 12 home victory against Tulane.

The Cougars are led by Maurice McNeil, who leads Houston with 13.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 41 blocked shots. Adam Brown (13.0 ppg) and Zamal Nixon (10.0) are also double-figure scorers,.

Marshall trails the all-time series with Houston 4-2, but have won two of the last three. That includes this year’s meeting, which the Herd pulled out by one, led by Kane with 24 points. Aundra Williams scored the winning bucket in the final seconds.

McNeil led Houston in that loss with 16 points and nine boards.

—Contact Brian Woodson

 at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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