MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Welcome to the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, the home of the Cancun Challenge, where West Virginia will take on Northern Iowa for the first time in school history. The preliminary games are complete. The Mountaineers (4-0) beat Northern Colorado (69-61) and Boston University (69-44), while the Panthers (6-0) knocked off Northern Colorado (77-72, OT) and Tennessee-Martin (87-67) to bring us to this point.
On the other side of the bracket is South Carolina and Wichita State and the opening-round winners will meet on Wednesday, while the opening-round losers will also play Wednesday.
We begin with the hotel’s arena itself from the picture above. That’s from a WVU practice on Monday, and if the ceiling looks a little low, it is. It’s not so much an arena as it is a huge conference room with bleachers. The Mountaineers played here in 2013, and fell to Wisconsin, 70-63, in the championship game. It will be an intimate setting during the Challenge, an adjustment to be sure for all involved.
Before we get to the good stuff, here’s what you need to know:
TV: CBS Sports Network (Comcast 288, 854 HD; DirecTV 221; DISH 158) for the 8:30 p.m. game. BETTING LINE: WVU is a 6-point favorite.
INSTANT SCOUTING REPORT: TRAE BERHOW
Northern Iowa’s 6-foot-5 junior guard Trae Berhow is the one the Mountaineers want to keep their eyes on. He’s scored 56 points over his last two games and has gone 12 of 15 (80%) from 3-point range during that time. He’s averaging 14.7 points per game and is shooting 56.4% from the field on the season. As a team, the Panthers utilize a 4-guard lineup and really try to spread defenses out, but if Berhow gets hot, this game could get very interesting.
THREE GOOD QUESTIONS
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH JORDAN McCABE? On the surface, it looks like WVU’s sophomore point guard is off to a bad start to the season. He’s shooting just 28.6% from the field and is averaging 3.3 points per game. Dig a little deeper, though, and the stats also tell you that McCabe leads WVU with 15 assists and he’s had just two turnovers in 61 minutes played. That’s actually pretty impressive, but his shooting numbers and defense have kept him off the floor in some games and both have to improve.
“I think some of it is mechanics,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said of McCabe’s shot. “Some of it is balance. Some of it may be just that they haven’t been getting as many shots up as what they normally get. I’m a big believe in stepping into your shot. I think when you step into your shot, you get your legs into it.”
West Virginia is also going through a process where the focus of the offense is throwing the ball inside, which is an adjustment for guards, because they’re used to running everything and having the offense go through them. The thought here is McCabe will eventually find his comfort zone and begin to show a little more consistency with his offense. That still leaves the question of whether or not McCabe can guard better players on the perimeter and keep guys from driving the ball to the basket. That, too, has to get better, or else Huggins will likely keep playing freshman Miles McBride late in games.
HAVE YOU SEEN THE RPI RATINGS? Yes I have. That is your Mountaineers ranked No. 5 in the nation by the Ratings Percentage Index — one spot ahead of Duke — with a strength of schedule of No. 38 in the country. Sadly, the RPI as a measuring tool used by the NCAA selection committee is pretty much dead. It’s been replaced by the NET, which does incorporate the RPI to some degree, but also a number of other factors.
I still believe in the RPI, though, because it gives an accurate picture of strength of schedule. Not all mid-major teams are built the same and it doesn’t give you a boost by playing awful Power Five teams, either. Now, do I think West Virginia is the fifth-best team in America? Probably not, but I do like to keep an eye on the old RPI, even if the NCAA no longer does.
WHAT ARE THE KEYS TO THE GAME? Northern Iowa is going to play small, which means you might see a little more of Gabe Osabuohien tonight, because he’s better at guarding on the perimeter. WVU is still going to pound it inside and try to dominate on the glass with second-chance points. That might be the key stat tonight for WVU. It will be interesting to see if Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe can both stay out of foul trouble. If they can, that will probably be another key factor for the Mountaineers. WVU also needs a boost from at least one of its own perimeter players, be it McCabe, Sean McNeil, Taz Sherman, Jermaine Haley or Emmitt Matthews Jr. Someone has to make shots when Tshiebwe and Culver draw the double teams that will surely come their way.
The best thing about neutral-court games is no team gets the home-court-advantage boost in the point spread. If this game was at the WVU Coliseum, the Mountaineers would likely be a nine- or 10-point favorite. WVU’s defense looked good against Boston, which has the same offensive philosophy as Northern Iowa. WVU is holding teams to just 28% shooting from 3-point range, so I like WVU to cover the six points, 72-60.
JUSTIN’S SEASON PREDICTIONS AGAINST THE SPREAD: 2-2.