NCAA/ATLANTA REGIONAL West Virginia staggers into tournament
Southern Illinois is fourth in the nation in scoring defense.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) -- No one saw West Virginia coming last season.
And before anyone knew what was happening, the Mountaineers were Pittsnogling their way to the Big East tournament title game and then the NCAA regional finals.
That kind of momentum isn't there this season.
Despite having five seniors among their top six players, the Mountaineers (20-10) stagger into their second straight NCAA tournament having lost five of their last seven games.
"Did we have the energy? Or was the season wearing us down? Or was it the schedule?" coach John Beilein wondered Thursday. "I'm not sure."
Whatever it was, West Virginia better figure it out in a hurry. The sixth seed in the Atlanta Regional plays 11th-seeded and tournament-tested Southern Illinois (22-10) today.
"We've been in every game at the end," Kevin Pittsnogle said of the team's recent slide. "Our energy on defense, we haven't been picking it up like we need to."
That won't be a problem for the Salukis, the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference who are fourth in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 56.2 points a game.
"They can really guard," Beilein said.
It will be an interesting matchup, with West Virginia's efficient offense built around backdoor cuts and 3-pointers -- lots and lots of 3-pointers -- against Southern Illinois' hard-nosed, pressure defense.
The Salukis have their hands full with the Mountaineers, who rank second nationally with 10.1 3-pointers a game, and Pittsnogle, the 6-foot-11 center with a shooting guard's range.
"I'm definitely going to try to establish an inside game for our team," Pittsnogle said. "I'll try to get open shots outside, but I'm going inside first."
The Salukis start two juniors, guards Tony Young and Jamaal Tatum, two sophomores and a freshman, none of whom are taller than 6-7.
Randal Falker will draw Pittsnogle for most of the game, hoping to use his quickness and athleticism to offset the height disadvantage.
And though West Virginia would seem to have the edge in experience, Southern Illinois knows what it's like to play in March, making its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Two times four
"This is Tony and Jamaal's fourth NCAA tournament game and I think people don't understand that we have been here for a while," second-year coach Chris Lowery said. "Everybody assumes this is our first trip. It doesn't really respect what we've done in the past."
A big key for the Mountaineers will be the health of Mike Gansey, the team's second-leading scorer at 17.2 points a game. Gansey strained an abdominal muscle in the first round of the Big East tournament against Pitt, and West Virginia folded without him, losing 68-57.
"He appears to be as close to 100 percent as he's been since the injury," Beilein said. "He's going to get injured when he plays because he's so fearless. Going into this game, we're going to need that fearlessness in him, and I know we're going to get it."