The Mountaineers haven't played at home in almost two weeks and in that time their season has had all the up-and-downs of the Steel Phantom. When Mountaineer fans last filed out of the WVU Coliseum, it followed a lackadaisical 10-point loss to St. Johns. That loss was immediately followed by another disappointing loss at Marquette and a too-close-for-comfort victory at DePaul. Needless to say, there were plenty of worries in Morgantown about what the future held for this squad.
Then came Georgetown.
Last Saturday the Mountaineers went into the nation's capital and came out with an impressive road win against a Georgetown team that was ranked No. 1 in the RPI. More than anything, that game showed the fans (and the team) that there's still great potential for success this season. While WVU lacks that one dominating player who can control a game and demand attention from his own team and the opposition, Saturday's win showed that with the right blend of role players doing what they do best, the Mountaineers can hang with anyone. Kevin Jones and Casey Mitchell put points on the board. Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla made sure the offense ran good sets and got good looks. John Flowers locked down one of the most prolific scorers in the conference in Austin Freeman. Everybody else? They made good cuts, smart passes, crashed the boards and defended like their season depended on it... because it did.
Tonight the Mountaineers face a struggling Friars squad still in search of its first Big East victory. Should the Mountaineers win easily? Of course. Will it be easy? Of course not, this is the Big East. Here's what interests me the most about tonight's game:
- Mike Casazza has a great piece in today's Daily Mail about how Huggins and the rest of the coaching staff making the players take written quizzes before each game. Focus and making the "smart play" were two things that seemed to elude the Mountaineers for much of the early season. The vast leap forward the team made at Georgetown can probably be attributed to this renewed focus. It will be interesting to watch tonight. Since the 'Eers have so much more skill than the Friars, it could be easy to fall back into old habits. I'll be watching to see if they make good decisions with the basketball, and quickly. If it degenerates into street ball, the Mountaineers still might emerge victorious, but it would be a bad omen for things to come.
- The development of inside scoring. Kevin Jones looked like an offensive force against the Hoyas, finally making the big plays down low we've been waiting for. In order to succeed in the rough and tumble of the Big East the Mountaineers must be able to score inside and Jones needs help. Deniz Kilicli has made improvements to his game over the last couple of weeks, and if the Big Turk can stay out of foul trouble he should be able to ring the bell repeatedly against the Friars. The announcement that freshman Kevin Noreen is out for the rest of the year mean's the time is now for Danny Jennings as well. His rebound and dish off of his own missed foul shot may have been the play of the game last week. Let's hope we see more smart and heady play out of that young man.
- Defending the scorers. Providence is a two-man team. Shut down Marshon Brooks and Vincent Council and the Mountaineers can win going away. It's not much of a stretch to assume that Huggs will have John Flowers shadowing Brooks all evening. Who matches up with Council is something else entirely. I expect a lot of minutes for Joe Mazzulla in this one, as he's Huggs' best bet to match Council step for step. If Mazzulla or Flowers get in foul trouble early, Huggins could go back to the 2-3 zone he's used with mixed effectiveness lately. Mountaineer fans should hope it doesn't come to that, because this team shouldn't need to go to deep into its' bag of tricks to beat the Friars.
- The numbers game. The Mountaineers need to be above .500 in conference to have a hope of a return to the Big Dance. A win tonight would put the 'Eers at 3-2, which is right where they want to be. A scheduling quirk means WVU has no conference games next week, instead squaring off against #8 Purdue and traveling to Charleston to face in-state rival Marshall. The 'Eers need tonight's win because if they dig themselves a hole, they won't be able to do anything about it for an entire week. In that time, the standings could shuffle an infinite number of ways. Better lock down a spot in the top half now. Four of the Mountaineers next five are against unranked teams. The Mountaineers better make hay while the sun is shining, because after than five of the next six come against teams ranked in the top eleven in the country. The Big East is no joke this year, and wherever a winnable game appears on the Mountaineer's schedule, they must take advantage of it.
I'm off to the Coliseum. Stay warm out there Mountaineers, I'll be back post-game with a recap and more thoughts.