Wednesday, May 24, 2017

No. 9 WVU set to battle Florida in Big 12/SEC Challenge

Brandon Watkins (20), Elijah Macon (45) and Jonathan Holton (1) celebrating after WVU's victory over Kansas State on Tuesday  (Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst, BGS)

Brandon Watkins (20), Elijah Macon (45) and Jonathan Holton (1) celebrating after WVU’s victory over Kansas State on Tuesday
(Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst, BGS)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–The ninth-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers get a break from the brutal schedule of Big 12 play to take on the Florida Gators in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in Gainesville.

WVU (17-3, 6-2 Big 12) is coming off a 70-55 win over Kansas State on Tuesday, but in recent days the Mountaineers suffered a crucial loss.

Senior Jonathan Holton was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

WVU turned the ball over 18 times and missed 13 free throws, but excellent defense allowed the Mountaineers to handle the Wildcats, who shot 35 percent from the floor and made just one-of-18 from 3-point range.

WVU’s defense could suffer with the loss of the energetic Holton. He leads the team in deflections and has has 23 turnovers, 22 steals and nine blocks through 20 games this season.

Devin Williams (41) drives to the basket against Kansas State (Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst, BGS)

Devin Williams (41) drives to the basket against Kansas State
(Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst, BGS)

The Mountaineers will need Devin Williams to return form against Florida in Holton’s absence.

Since scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against No. 1 Kansas Williams has really struggled.

The junior forward is averaging 6.8 points and 5.8 rebounds over the last four games. Williams has seen limited action due to foul trouble and has had issues with turnovers. He turned the ball over four times against Texas Tech and six times against Kansas State.

WVU could also use a big game from Elijah Macon and Nathan Adrian.

Adrian started for injured Esa Ahmad on Tuesday and scored a season-high 10 points. He is a possibility to start for Holton.

“Well we are taking a look at different things,” head coach Bob Huggins said in Friday’s teleconference. “We looked at different things yesterday in practice and we will continue to do that today. I think that (Adrian starting) is a possibility but I don’t think its etched in stone right now.”

But Adrian starting for Holton could depend on whether or not Ahmad returns to the lineup.

“Ahmad practiced yesterday and was moving well,” Huggins said.

The Mountaineers aren’t the only team that will be without a key player. The Gators (13-7, 5-3 SEC) will likely be without Justin Leon, who suffered a concussion in Tuesday’s 60-59 loss to Vanderbilt.

Leon is a junior college transfer who is averaging 8.6 points while starting in each SEC game.

Kasey Hill has scored 30 points in Florida’s last two games and could start in Leon’s place. The slumping DeVon Walker is the other candidate.

The Gators, which are second in the SEC in scoring defense, holding its opponents to an average of 64.7 points per game.

Florida is 12th in the SEC in 3-point shooting at 32 percent.

They had made at least nine 3-pointers in each of their previous four games. After shooting 50 percent while scoring at least 80 points in three straight wins, the Gators shot a season-low 33 percent against the Commodores.

Dorian Finney-Smith is Florida’s leading scorer averaging 14.4 ppg and 8.3 rebounds. He has had four double-doubles in the last six games and is shooting 49 percent from the floor and 43 from 3.

Jevon Carter slam dunks against Kansas State (Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst, BGS)

Jevon Carter slam dunks against Kansas State
(Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst, BGS)

WVU commits more than 24 fouls per game but the Gators rank 334th in foul shooting so that could play in the Mountaineers’ favor.

Florida’s head coach Mike Smith is in his first season at the reigns with the Gators, who are 9-1 this season at home. Smith is an Ole Miss graduate and is 114-47 in his fifth season overall.

Huggins has never faced Florida in his career.

This will be the eighth time WVU and the Gators meet. The last meeting took place on Dec. 20, 2003, with Florida beating the Mountaineers 70-57 in the Orange Bowl Classic.

The Gators lead the series 4-3.

Tipoff is at noon (ET) on ESPN.

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