MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Mountaineer basketball fans will get a better gauge on how much this year’s team has improved tonight when West Virginia takes on 7-0 Missouri in the Big 12/SEC Challenge at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.
It is clear the 6-2 Mountaineers are better – they are much better than last year’s 13-19 team in almost every offensive category from scoring to shooting to handling the basketball. Now the question is can this young team get over the hump by going into a hostile environment and defeating a top-quality opponent on the road?
It’s been a while since West Virginia has done so, the last time being at Pitt on Feb. 16, 2012 when the Mountaineers defeated the Panthers 66-48. That’s really the last notable victory for WVU, some 40 games ago.
WVU’s first foray into an enemy environment earlier this year against a so-so Virginia Tech team back on Nov. 12 didn’t go so well, the Mountaineers blowing a 17-point first half lead before falling 87-82.
“We had so much youth early on and I think we get better each time out,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins [Listen to Huggins' Wednesday afternoon teleconference]. “I think our understanding grows with each game and each practice and we’re not near as good as I think we’re going to be at the end of the year.”
Guards Eron Harris and Juwan Staten have been tremendous so far for the Mountaineers, the duo averaging a combined 36.9 points per game through the first eight games of the season. Staten has the second best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country while handing out a Big 12-best 7.5 assists per game.
Harris ranks second in the Big 12 in scoring while shooting a team-best 52 percent from 3. The Mountaineers are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, ranking seventh nationally with an average of 9.6 triples per game.
Junior college forward Remi Dibo comes off the bench to give WVU a scoring boost (10.4 ppg.) while freshman power forward Devin Williams continues to develop with averages of 10 points and eight rebounds per game.
Beginning with tonight’s game against Missouri, WVU will have back-to-back shots on ESPN to get back into the national discussion. The Mountaineers will also take on 19th-ranked Gonzaga on national TV at the Coliseum next Tuesday night.
“You go into Missouri and they’ve got the longest home winning streak in the country,” said Huggins. “And Gonzaga has been very good for a long time and we haven’t played very well against them to this point.”
But first up are the Tigers tonight.
Missouri is unbeaten and looking to go 8-0 for the first time since 2007 with wins over Southeastern Louisiana, Southern Illinois, Hawaii, Gardner-Webb, IUPUI, Northwestern and Nevada so far. Coach Frank Haith is also back with the team after serving a five-game suspension for his role in the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami a few years ago.
Missouri defeated Northwestern by 11 in Haith’s return, and then topped Nevada by 13 in its most recent game on Nov. 29 at the Las Vegas Invitational.
The Tigers are one of the bigger teams West Virginia will face this year with a pair of 6-foot-9-plus post players to go along with three 6-foot-5 guys on the perimeter.
Guards Jordan Clarkson (19.4 ppg.) and Jabari Brown (19.3 ppg.) have combined to average nearly 40 points per game, while 6-foot-5 senior guard Earnest Ross shows averages of 13.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
“I think they are pretty much perimeter oriented, not that their bigs aren’t capable, but I think Clarkson, Brown and Ross kind of have the green light to shoot it and drive it when they want to,” said Huggins. “They are really good in transition; they are big, athletic and fast.”
The Tigers are averaging 80.6 points per game and are shooting 50.4 percent from the floor as a team. Both Mizzou bigs Ryan Rosburg (78.3 percent) and Johnathan Williams (52.8 percent) are shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and are averaging a combined 14.2 rebounds per game.
“Williams is very, very athletic. When you get 17 rebounds in a game that’s doing work there,” said Huggins. “Rosburg is a big, strong guy that has got skill. (Tony) Criswell has been there for four years. I think their inside guys are talented.”
Missouri has the longest home-court winning streak in the country right now winning 22 straight. The Tigers have also won 77 straight games at home against non-conference opposition and are 88-4 at the facility since 2008.
Tonight’s game will be televised nationally on ESPN2 (Mike Kelly and Jimmy Dykes) while the Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG (Tony Caridi and Jay Jacobs) will provide the radio call on affiliates throughout the Mountain State.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.
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