MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After No. 10 Virginia throttled No. 14 West Virginia two years ago at Madison Square Garden, the Cavaliers reached the Elite Eight.
When No. 25 West Virginia surprised No. 6 Virginia 66-57 in Charlottesville last season, the Mountaineers eventually reached the Sweet 16.
Now comes Tuesday night’s top-25 matchup at the WVU Coliseum where another tone-setter could be in the works.
This time, just like the previous two meetings, No. 15 Virginia (8-0) is unbeaten and playing Tony Bennett’s trademark pack line defense. Meanwhile, No. 18 West Virginia (7-1) is sticking with its full-court press and riding a seven-game winning streak.
“It’s a battle of the tempos,” said guard Chase Harler, one of nine Mountaineers who averages double-digit minutes in a deep rotation that will expand once Esa Ahmad’s half-season suspension ends next month.
While splitting their last two meetings, West Virginia has sometimes shown the requisite patience for attacking the Cavaliers’ sagging defense. At other times — specifically during the 2015 loss at MSG — a reliance on tough shots fueled lengthy scoreless stretches. West Virginia’s veteran backcourt of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles possesses some recall on facing the pack line, but coach Bob Huggins has been trying to educate a group of newcomers during a four-day break.
“It’s whole/part/whole,” Huggins said. “We show them the whole thing, and then we break it into parts, and then we put it back together again.”
Of course, Bennett faces an equally daunting task: Preparing his players to handle the in-your-face trapping of “Press Virginia” that generates more than 22 turnovers per game.
“They’re tough, they’re good,” Bennett said.
Transfer guard Nigel Johnson, while playing his first two seasons at Kansas State, went 1-3 against West Virginia in those Big 12 battles. Now he’s gearing up with his ACC teammates for another test.
“I know exactly what they are going to do and that pressing style,” Johnson said. “Just stay patient, don’t let them overwhelm you.”
Sophomore guard Kyle Guy, a former top-50 recruit, leads Virginia at 16.6 points, while shooting nearly 43 percent from 3-point range. He made five 3s during Saturday’s 75-54 win over Lehigh but also impressed with his penetration skills.
“He has developed the ability to put it on the floor,” Bennett said. “It’s not just, ‘He can only shoot the 3.’ He’s showed his ability to drive and shoot, and l like how he’s moving and coming off quick, getting his feet set and shooting it.”
Guard Devon Hall (11.8 points, 4.0 rebounds) is 20 of 21 at the foul line this season for a Virginia team that makes 81 percent of its free throws.
“A lot is said about their defense, but the reality is they control the game with their offense,” Huggins said. “You don’t want to go down and play defense for 30 seconds, then come down and jack up a shot in five seconds, and then have to go play defense again.”
West Virginia counters with the All-American candidate Carter (19 points, 5.8 assists, 4.5 steals) and the sometimes-explosive Miles (14.9 points, 3.8 rebounds).
Since dropping the season opener against Texas A&M, the Mountaineers are averaging 93 points across seven wins. That pace will be hard to match with Virginia allowing only 50 points per game.
No. 14 Virginia (8-0) at No. 18 West Virginia (7-1)
Tipoff: 7 p.m. at the WVU Coliseum (ESPNU)
The skinny: Facing the pack line defense isn’t so rare as, say, facing a triple-option attack in college football, because three of WVU’s Big 12 opponents use facets of it. But Virginia commits to it like few other programs.
“It makes you make jumpshots,” Huggins said. “There’s five guys inside the 3-point line and they hope you don’t make jumpshots. You’ve got to be able to pass in a confined area.”
Quotable: “They play pack line, but we’ve got shooters so they’re going to have to unpack it.” — West Virginia forward Lamont West
Line: West Virginia favored by 5
Prediction: West Virginia 72-69