BUFFALO, N.Y. – About seven hours southeast of Buffalo, N.Y., in the opposite corner of the state, is Mahoney Park in the New Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island, where Missouri’s Zaire Taylor and West Virginia’s Dan Jennings played a late-night game of one-on-one this summer.
“A cop had to come by and tell us it was too late and you’re not allowed to be in the park that time of the night,” Taylor said. “He let us finish the game. I’m not even gonna tell you who won.”
No. 10 seed Missouri (23-10) vs. No. 2 seed West Virginia (28-6)
WHEN: about 1:40 p.m. CDT
WHERE: HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.
TV: CBS - KRCG/Channel 13 (Gus Johnson play-by-play; Len Elmore analyst)
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM/KCOU 88.1 FM
ONLINE: Uninterrupted viewing at NCAA.com
SERIES: MU leads 1-0. Last meeting MU won 89-78 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 19, 1992.
MISSOURI KEY: Box Out: WVU averages the second most offensive rebounds in the nation leading to easy second chance points and more opportunities to slow the game. Against four players taller than 6-7, MU is going to need to box out in order to win.
ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA:
Coach: Bob Huggins, 3rd season
Last Season: 23-12 (10-8 Big East)
THE SKINNY: WVU is one of the most talented teams in the country. It won the Big East Conference Tournament, and has four starters 6-7 or taller. WVU is led by Da'Sean Butler who has made six game winners this season. It likes to play at a slow-paced halfcourt game that will give MU problems.
WEST VIRGINIA KEY: Handle the Press: WVU has struggled with the press in the past, but it has since become a point of emphasis. As long as WVU limits its turnovers, it can eliminate MU's main offensive edge.
WATCH FOR: Da'Sean Butler: Butler is WVU's "Mr. Big Shot," and has hit six game-winnners this season. The 6-7 guard was first team all Big East and is able to beat opponents inside and out averaging a team-high 17 points a game.
Like he did that night, Taylor hopes he takes care of Jennings again Sunday when No. 10 seed Missouri plays No. 2 seed West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Tigers aren’t expected to beat the taller, stronger Mountaineers. But on the playground court, Taylor, a senior, was expected to handle the younger Jennings, a freshman. His reputation depended on it.
“You definitely can’t have guys from your neighborhood younger than you beating you because the whole neighborhood hears about it,” Taylor said, smiling. “Next thing you know, it ain’t a good thing. People doubting your credibility as a basketball player.”
Credibility is everything in some neighborhoods in New York City, identified by many, including the Mountaineers' Kevin Jones, as the Mecca of basketball. Jones and each of West Virginia's starters are from the New York City-area.
But status is worthless in places like Harlem’s Rucker Park.
“If you walk in there with a name, they don’t care,” Jennings said. “You’ve got to prove your game.”
The playground court at Rucker Park has likely hosted more great players than any court in the world. The list includes Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, to name a few. Jennings, who grew up down the street from Taylor in Staten Island, crossed the bay to Manhattan to play at Rucker when he was in high school.
Describing the competition there as tough is like calling Manhattan’s streets busy. There’s a commentator who announces the games like he’s on TV, only he’s much harder to impress.
“If you don’t play defense, you’ll get embarrassed, and you’ll get sent home with your head down,” Jennings said. “And they’ll embarrass you on the microphone. They will.”
Jennings said he felt he had to leave Staten Island to prove he was a legitimate player.
“If you end up being good in Staten Island, everyone will say, ‘OK, you’re good in Staten Island. Now go across the water and play against them guys to see the better competition,’” he said. “If you can play with them guys across the water, then you can play with anybody.”
The comment initiated a verbal battle between the childhood friends.
“No, that ain’t true,” Taylor said. “That’s what he think.
“ … A team from my neighborhood … we would go everywhere. Everybody, we’d kill them. And we’d beat them, consistently. We beat teams all through the country. All through Brooklyn. We go to Brooklyn, we go to Coney Island … We’d go every place (and win).”
West Virginia’s leading scorer Da’Sean Butler, from Newark, N.J., not far from Manhattan, snapped when he heard about his teammate’s proclamation.
“Danny said that?” Butler asked, turning his head to look at Jennings on the other side of the locker room at HSBC Arena. “Danny, why you telling him that you’ve got to go across the water to get seen?
“Don’t listen to Dan. Don’t listen to Dan Jennings. You can get seen in New Jersey, baby.”
The debate for borough or neighborhood supremacy will likely never be settled, but all agree players from the city have a certain New York swagger, whether they're from from Staten Island or Jersey or Queens, where West Virginia’s leading rebounder Devin Ebanks is from.
“The New York swagger is like no other swagger,” Jennings said. “You go around and feel like nobody can mess with you.
Taylor, the Tigers’ only player from New York, said he’s not the typical New York City player. He’s patient and sometimes even passive. But the swagger seems to come out at the end of games.
Taylor earned the nickname Mr. Big Shot from coach Mike Anderson after making game-winners against Texas and Kansas last season. He did it again at Iowa State this year, at the end of regulation and overtime.
Butler, though, is in a different league. He has made six game-winners this season, but when he walked past Taylor in the hallway Saturday, he said: “Hey Mr. Big Shot.”
“Hopefully I can get two more and be like him,” Taylor joked.
West Virginia’s Brooklyn-raised point guard Darryl Bryant has his own New York-style nickname. Ebanks said he and his teammates call Bryant 'Truck' because he used to run people over when he was younger.
“You’re from New York, you think you can dribble through anything,” Bryant said, laughing, though he added it’s not so easy in college basketball.
Missouri’s Kim English, from Baltimore, doesn’t buy the swagger notion. Neither does teammate Laurence Bowers, though he definitely acknowledges the stereotype, though in a less appealing manner.
“Of course they’re going to be overconfident and think that they can just pound us into the ground,” he said. “But we beg to differ.”
Bowers might be right about West Virginia being overconfident, especially its New York-born players, who say they aren’t concerned about facing Missouri’s one-of-a-kind press that overwhelmed Clemson on Friday.
“You’re from New York, you’ve pretty much seen everything,” Ebanks said. “I don’t think the press will hurt us at all.”
Bryant, whose AAU team pressed for entire games, said West Virginia practiced five-against-five on Saturday instead of six or seven-against-five, a tactic many teams have used to prepare for Missouri.
“We’re not scared of that press,” Jennings said. “We don’t fear nothing. We’re well-prepared for this game. We’re confident. They have to worry about us too.”
Mainly the big and proven starting lineup of New Yorkers, who now play for a state with a population less than one-fourth of New York City. Only one of them, Bryant, is shorter than 6-foot-7.
“We’re not flustered by anything,” Jennings said about handling Missouri’s press. “That’s how we grew up. We grew up in New York, a fast-paced city. You can’t be flustered to live in that city.”