Back in 2002, when he was still coaching at Cincinnati, Bob Huggins says he got talked into playing 18th-ranked Oklahoma State in its brand new Gallagher-Iba Arena to open the season. Although his Bearcats only lost by seven, 69-62, Huggins said it felt like a lot more.
“It felt like 106 the way they were playing,” he recalled.
But by going into that environment against a very good basketball team Huggins said his players knew right away what they needed to do to become a better basketball team.
“We had some soul searching and we had some guys question some other guy's fortitude and I questioned a lot of our guy's fortitude and we went on to win (20) games in a row,” Huggins said. “But we knew what we had to fix.”
Huggins’ thoughts went immediately to that Oklahoma State game when he was asked why he scheduled Monday night’s game against 21st-ranked Gonzaga, which returns four starters from last year’s 26-7 team that ran West Virginia right out of the gym up in Pittsburgh in an NCAA tournament second round game last March.
“We’re going to go out there and play like crazy and at least we’ll know what we have to fix and how good we are … or how bad we are,” Huggins reasoned.
Sometimes scheduling winnable games and winning them by large margins early in the year can be fool’s gold, says Huggins.
“Sometimes you play all of those games and sometimes it’s OK because you get your confidence and things, but a lot of times you just mask what your problems really are and we’ll find out real quick what our issues are and we’ll go about fixing it,” Huggins explained.
The Bulldogs (1-0) already have one impressive performance under their belt, whipping Southern Utah by 38 last Friday night. The usual cast of characters West Virginia fans became well acquainted with in Pittsburgh last March – guys like Kevin Pangos, Elias Harris, Guy Landy Edi, Sam Dower and Gary Bell Jr. – all played well on Friday night. And then the Bulldogs got 22 points off the bench 7-foot-1-inch European import Przemek Karnowski, who made 10-of-16 shots including a pair of 3s. Guard David Stockton, the son of Gonzaga Hall of Famer John Stockton, also contributed 12 off the bench.
Gonzaga has made 15 trips to the NCAA tournament in the last 19 years, most of them coming under current coach Mark Few, who won his 343rd game at Gonzaga last Friday night against Southern Utah.
“They’re very good … and they’ve got four out of five starters back,” said Huggins.
Mountaineer players admit last year’s Gonzaga performance wore on Huggins and during the off-season he brought that game up frequently whenever he needed to remind them what they had to do in preparation for this season.
“I don’t like losing. There’s a whole bunch of people I would have liked to play again – like 14 of them (the number of games West Virginia lost last year) – but, yeah, that one was embarrassing,” said Huggins.
Ahead of Gonzaga, West Virginia has had two opportunities to play outside competition – one a closed scrimmage against another local college team and the other an exhibition game against Glenville State - but Huggins is not sure that’s enough to get them ready for what his team is going to face Monday night in Spokane.
Huggins was displeased with his team’s exhibition performance against Glenville State last Tuesday night, a 95-53 victory, citing a lack of effort by some players and poor shooting by others.
“Our shot preparation was terrible,” he said of his team’s 1-of-14 shooting performance from 3. “Our shot preparation was awful because you should know when you’re open they’re going to pass you the ball, but instead we’ve got guys with their heads down trying to drive it into three guys and then throwing it to a guy who is not open.”
Huggins used a starting lineup consisting Keaton Miles
and Deniz Kilicli
at forwards, La Salle transfer Aaric Murray
at center and Jabarie Hinds
and Dayton transfer Juwan Staten
at guards. But how many guys get on the floor after that remains to be seen.
“I want us to be better than we were last year,” Huggins said. “I thought we could play 10-11 guys and they would all play really, really hard and we could keep subbing guys in and keep playing fresh people and just wear people down, but I don’t know if we have that many people.”
Tipoff is slated for 11:59 p.m. at 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN (Dave Pasch and Sean Farnham) as part of the Old Spice Classic/ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
MSN’s pregame coverage begins with the Coliseum Countdown at 11:30 p.m. Veteran play-by-play man Tony Caridi will once again be joined on the broadcast by longtime analyst Jay Jacobs and studio host Kyle Wiggs.Be sure to follow Mountaineer basketball on Facebook by "liking the page" to have news sent directly to your Facebook wall.