By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If Bob Huggins took a mirror and held it up to the Missouri team that West Virginia University plays tonight in Columbia, Mo., he would get back a reflection of his own team.
Oh, Missouri does have a couple of seniors for leadership, which West Virginia lacks, and the Tigers do have a 7-0 record, while the Mountaineers are 6-2, but if you listen to Frank Haith, Missouri’s coach, talk, you hear a whole bunch of the same kinds of thing Huggins has been saying about his team heading into a week when it plays not only the Tigers but No. 15/19 Gonzaga.
In fact, Huggins’ most recent utterings about the upcoming stretch began with, “We’re excited about it.”
Want to guess what Haith said?
“We’re excited about this week. This week’s a big week for us.”
See, his team not only plays WVU, but the Tigers then play No. 17/18 UCLA, a virtual match with what WVU faces.
Now you’ve heard Huggins discuss his team, about how it is young and still learning.
Listen up again to Haith.
“We knew we were going to be a new team — a young team. We have two seniors. Obviously, early on, we had a couple of games, then our ‘buy’ games and then you always have a tournament around the holiday season,” he said. “Going to Vegas, we played a Big Ten team, so it got tougher out in Vegas. Now, it obviously takes another step as you look at the next games in succession. You’ve got West Virginia, UCLA, (Illinois) and then N.C. State, so it definitely gets tougher and tougher as we get toward league play.”
You might recall that WVU played Wisconsin, a Big 10 team, and battled the then 10th-ranked Badgers hard before falling, making it a game Huggins is using for motivation.
“We’re getting ready to get into some competitive play. A victory over Wisconsin would’ve put us on the map. It would’ve helped us to beat a top 10 team,” he said.
Huggins gushes with respect for Missouri and sees it as a chance to get back on that map after last year’s disastrous 13-19 season.
It’s no different with Haith talking about West Virginia.
“Every game is important, but there’s no question when you have an opportunity to go up against a power conference team, a team that I look at in watching tape will be very good in the Big 12,” Haith said. “I think they’re much better than they were last year. They’re so efficient offensively that I think their coach will tell you their team (last year) was not as good offensively as they are now.”
Indeed, Huggins does just that, or did so after the Loyola victory.
“We’re better than a year ago, but we’re not entirely where we need to be at this point,” Huggins said.
And Haith emphasized just how much better the Mountaineers were after pouring it on against Loyola of Maryland, 96-47.
“West Virginia’s a team I’ve competed against in the past, and they’re always very competitive, very tough and very physical. They play with a chip. You have to bring your lunch pail when you play against them, and this team is very efficient offensively,” he said.
“They shoot 47 percent from three, they stretch you, and their 4-man can shoot. At times, they can put five guys out there that can make threes. So they’re a very difficult team to match up against, and their point guard has one of the best assist-turnover ratios in the country — it has to be.
“He has 60 assists and nine turnovers. That tells you right there a little bit about how difficult they are (to defend) and what they do offensively. It will be a tremendous challenge for us on Thursday, and I think we have to be ready.”
That, of course, is Juwan Staten, who has sparked the revival along with Eron Harris.
“We’re way better. We scored 96 points and (sophomore guard) Eron Harris wasn’t very good. He’s been really good, and he didn’t play near as well as he’s been playing. Juwan didn’t score near as well as he’s been scoring. Neither of them shot very well,” Huggins said.
“In spite of that, we were still able to score because (junior forward) Rémi Dibo and (freshman forward) Nathan Adrian made shots. (Sophomore guard) Terry Henderson kind of looked like Terry again. He had some bounce to him. Hopefully he continues. It’s nice to be able to win like that without those two having some of their better games.”
As for Missouri, Haith just recently returned after sitting out a five-game suspension for his role in the Nevin Shapiro scandal that rocked Hurricane basketball when he was head coach at Miami, Fla.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.