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3-point scouting report: LSU Tigers bring the Challenge to Morgantown

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. —  Because first-semester sellouts are rare in college basketball, Bob Huggins probably won’t see the 15,000 fans he desires at the WVU Coliseum on Thursday night. But the coach offered a prediction for those who do attend the West Virginia-LSU matchup:

“It’s going to be a very high-level, athletic, fun-to-watch game.”

LSU (5-2) visits as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge and finds No. 16 West Virginia (7-0) off to its winningest start in five seasons. Between the Mountaineers’ press and the Tigers’ attacking front line, there will be ample athleticism on display.

Tip-off is 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

“Their front line is as athletic as anybody we are going to play all year,” Huggins said. “They play elbows above the rim.”

To counter LSU’s effective interior, West Virginia offers up the nation’s top offensive rebounding team, along with an in-your-shorts trapping defense that has produced 13.9 steals per game, also tops in Division 1.

Here’s our 3-point scouting report on the Tigers:

Mickey and Martin man the middle: Sophomore Jarell Martin, a 6-foot-10 forward with 3-point range, scores 15.9 per game and shows the offensive versatility scouts expected from the No. 13-ranked national prospect in the Rivals class of 2013.

Yet he’s not the preseason All-SEC pick for LSU. That would be the quick-jumping Jordan Mickey, a 6-8 sophomore who Bob Huggins describes as one of the nation’s most athletic interior players. Mickey averages 17.5 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game. He’ll be a nusiance in the paint—on both ends.

Josh Gray toes both sides of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge: If LSU’s junior point guard seems familiar to WVU fans, it’s because he faced the Mountaineers three times during the 2012-13 season, when he was a freshman at Texas Tech.

Gray scored 10 points against WVU in Lubbock and 10 in the league tournament game in Kansas City. In Morgantown, however, he was 1-of-9 for only four points.

After an eye-popping one-year layover at Odessa Community College—where he scored 34.7 per game to lead the NJCAA—Gray is emerging as an offensive threat for the Tigers. After scoring 25 against UMass on 11-of-15 shooting, he’s up to 12.7 points per game.

“He’s still got the same type of game, he’s just playing at a higher level,” said West Virginia’s Juwan Staten.

Gray still exhibits some of the sloppiness that plagued him at Texas Tech, however. He committed seven turnovers against UMass, and for his D-I career has nearly as many turnovers (125) as assists (131).

LSU has a coaching alum too: As Bob Huggins is to WVU, coach Johnny Jones is to LSU (albeit with 503 fewer wins on his resume).

The kid who played on Dale Brown’s Final Four team in 1980 subsequently spent 13 seasons as a Tigers assistant, during which time he landed a few recognizable recruits (Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Jackson and Randy Livingston). Jones coached North Texas for 11 years—twice winning the Sun Belt—before returning to LSU in 2012 when Trent Johnson curiously departed for TCU.

He owns a 39-26 record, including a win in last year’s NIT, though this is Jones’ most promising team so far. Those expectations are being tempered a bit after the Tigers dropped games to Clemson and Old Dominion in the Virgin Islands.

Line: West Virginia -9.5

Prediction: West Virginia 74-70

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