By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This time there’s a whole lot more at stake for West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team than state pride when it faces downstate rival Marshall in the Capitol Classic.
Tipoff is 7:30 p.m. with the game being aired on WBOY-TV.
West Virginia has played something of a killer schedule of late with a young team and dropped a pair of difficult decisions to Missouri on the road and Gonzaga at home, leaving them looking at a 6-5 record as they take the floor against a 4-5 Marshall team coming off a 90-77 loss to Penn State.
WVU coach Bob Huggins knows that this will not be an easy game. None of them really are against Marshall, 11 of the last 15 being decided by single digits even though WVU owns victories in 13 of the last 17 and six of the last seven.
“Marshall is good. They are talented. They are probably as athletic as anybody we’ve played other than Missouri,” Huggins said, offering high praise with that remark. “Cheich Sane is really good. Elijah Pittman makes plays. Pittman made some catches you don’t see anybody but NBA guys make.”
Pittman is averaging 21.4 points a game for Marshall, even better than the 19.3 average Eron Harris brings into the game for the Mountaineers.
The setup for the game is not a good one for WVU.
“It’s a hard game sometimes when we’ve just played Gonzaga and we’re getting ready to play Purdue. It’s hard for those guys, especially young guys,” Huggins said.
Adding to the problem is the distraction of it being finals week with the Christmas break lying ahead.
In both the Missouri and Gonzaga games WVU showed itself capable of competing with nationally ranked teams and against both Missouri and Wisconsin it showed a grit to fight back from large deficits that it hadn’t shown last year.
WVU is improving, and Huggins is not afraid to say so.
“Obviously, we’re a lot closer. We’re going to be good. I said this in the beginning of the year. We can be good. It’s just our margin for error is not big,” he said. “So, we can’t take plays off; we can’t not run back down the floor. There’s going to be some things we can’t control, but the things we can control we will have to control them.
“We’re getting closer. We’re not there. We’re not close to being there yet.”
The players understand this, especially the older ones who say you have to throw out the won-lost record in evaluating the team at present.
“It’s not a fair indication,” junior forward Kevin Noreen said. “I don’t know what the numbers were last year, but I’m sure the scoring differential in some of the losses was a lot greater than what it has been this year. Some of the losses we had last year, we kind of gave up. I don’t think you’ve seen this team give up yet.
“We’re getting there, but we’ve got to get a lot better.”
And, they have to start winning games like this Marshall game, which always is a physical war, the kind you get in in-state rivalry matchups.
“First of all, they referee like it’s Cincinnati-Xavier, and it’s not,” said Huggins, who believes the Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry in which he used to coach is among the most intense in the nation. “It’s not close, but they come out and call 75 fouls.”
In the last six games, 286 fouls have been called, an average of 47.7 per game, while there have been 325 free throws, an average of 54.2.
As usual, WVU will be looking to Harris and Juwan Staten to lead them. Harris is coming off a 23-point game against Gonzaga, but it was really disappointing in that he scored 18 points in the first half and then managed to get off only five shots in the second half.
Staten has run the team from the point and been its emotional leader, averaging 16.4 points a game while dishing off 68 assists with just 14 turnovers.
Huggins moved Terry Henderson into the starting lineup in place of Nathan Adrian in the Gonzaga game and he responded with15 points and now has three consecutive games of 16, 14 and 15 points and can be expected to start again, although Huggins says he will look at matchups in determining who starts.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.