SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Bob Huggins and Tubby Smith won’t get too caught up in the hype of a tournament championship in mid-November.
Neither needs the Puerto Rico Tip-Off trophy to establish momentum heading into December. By reaching Sunday night’s title game in the manner in which they did, the teams have already done enough to support their case as conference contenders.
West Virginia discovered it might have a star shooter in Casey Mitchell when he went for 31 points and hit a decisive Da’Sean Butler-like 3 to beat Vanderbilt on Friday in the semifinals. Minnesota knew it could win a monster game without its best creator in Devoe Joseph (left back home in Minneapolis for a violation of team rules) by striking a balance between its perimeter shooting and a beefy frontline that anchors its stingy defense.
Sure, the winner of this game will get the buzz and a decent ranking. But the loser should still be ranked high and considered a team to watch for the foreseeable future.
“It’s crazy,’’ said West Virginia’s Darryl Bryant while watching Minnesota beat North Carolina on Friday night. “Everyone picked North Carolina. You can see [the Gophers] are talented. We’ll definitely come out and play hard. Both of us get after it. It will be an exciting game.’’
The third-place matchup Sunday will pit two more finesse teams in Vanderbilt and North Carolina. But the title game of West Virginia and Minnesota should be a rugged affair.
The Gophers’ Trevor Mbakwe doesn’t hesitate to toss his body around to get a board or a flush. The wide bases of Maurice Walker, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III will push West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli plenty, and if he can’t handle them, then more rugged wings like Cam Thoroughman or Dan Jennings will have to body someone up inside. Kevin Jones and John Flowers will have to board. But so, too, will Minnesota’s wings like Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins.
The backcourts could be a wash. WVU’s Joe Mazzulla and Bryant can get to the hole and Mitchell can make 3-pointers. For Minnesota, Al Nolen is a lock-down defender, Blake Hoffarber is a sharp 3-point shooter and Chip Armelin can make shots.
Huggins said that a year ago he anticipated playing the Gophers in the title game of the 76 Classic in Anaheim. But Portland upset Minnesota and West Virginia didn’t get the necessary pop out of playing and beating the Pilots for the title.
That’s not the case this season. The seeds held and WVU will benefit from playing Vanderbilt and ultimately Minnesota. The Mountaineers expected to play Carolina, but no one seemed too upset Friday night. The Eers knew about UNC’s personnel and system and of course wanted to compete against the Tar Heel tradition. But as the West Virginia players watched the Gophers put away North Carolina, the respect was obvious.
Here are some questions I have heading into Sunday night’s title game:
1. Who will be the better shooter? Minnesota’s Blake Hoffarber or West Virginia’s Casey Mitchell.
2. Who will foul out first? West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli or Minnesota’s Maurice Walker.
3. Who will be able to get a clear shot to the basket? Minnesota’s Al Nolen or either West Virginia’s Joe Mazzulla or Truck Bryant?
4. Who will be the sleeper contributor? West Virginia’s Jonnie West or Minnesota’s Austin Hollins?
5. What will be a tougher matchup? Keeping Rodney Williams off the offensive backboard or finding John Flowers amid West Virginia’s offense?
6. How many sky hooks will Ralph Sampson III make? Will Kevin Jones bust out and have a monster outing?
7. Whose offense will be more efficient?
8. Which fan base will outshine the other? Surprisingly, Minnesota came with noise after being a little maligned on Thursday. The Mountaineer fans have dominated the scene at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico, but they might get a challenge from the Gopher faithful Sunday night.