By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is early December, and it’s a long, long time until March, unless you happen to be a basketball team that has already lost three games and is facing a quartet of games that could come close to making or breaking your season.
That is what Bob Huggins and his West Virginia University Mountaineers are looking at as they go into tonight’s 7:30 Capital Classic meeting with in-state rival Marshall.
In a way, the Marshall game starts what might be the most important stretch of games WVU will face this year — meeting Marshall, unbeaten Virginia Tech, an improved Duquesne team on the road, and John Beilein’s unbeaten, third-ranked Michigan team in the new arena in Brooklyn, N.Y.
It is part of a really difficult early-season schedule Huggins has strung together, one that may make them a pretty good team by the end of the season, if they don’t lose everything they are playing for trying to get there.
“I said when we came in we would upgrade the schedule,” Huggins said. “Look at this year’s schedule, and it’s not any easier next year. It may even be harder. The theory is it does make you better down the stretch. You hope it doesn’t screw with the guys’ confidence along the way.”
Huggins doesn’t think that has happened this year.
That certainly didn’t happen to center Deniz Kilicli, who is not off to the big start Huggins had anticipated him having. Still, he believes that the best is ahead for WVU.
“It’s always better to finish strong than to start good and go down,” Kilicli said, perhaps referring to last year’s team that struggled through the second half of the season. “This team, once we get everything together, we will win. Huggs knows what he’s doing, and if you do exactly what he says we will be fine.”
Huggins’ last time around in the Big 12 he saw the downside of this philosophy when Kansas State couldn’t win the key non-conference games.
“We finished fourth in the Big 12 that year and the NCAA took four teams to the tournament ... but we weren’t one of them,” he said, pointing to going out to play California and getting “slaughtered” in that game.
The lesson was not lost on him. Playing a strong schedule isn’t enough.
You have to play and win ... and that means things have to come together now ... or maybe they never will.
“We need to win games. There isn’t any doubt about that,” Huggins said. “When they do the NCAA matrix, we used to say that they leaned on the last 10 games of the season, but you haven’t heard that in a while.
“If two teams seem equal, they might use who was the better team late, but now they look at how many games did you win against the Top 20? How did you fare against the Top 50? How many of your wins came against teams with losing records?”
And so, just playing teams like Michigan or Purdue or Virginia Tech isn’t enough.
You have to win some of them, and that has to begin tonight with Marshall.
Marshall is a big team that will challenge the Mountaineers’ rebounding abilities. The Herd averages 43 rebounds a game and pulls down seven more rebounds a game than its opposition.
“They have a ton of bigs,” Huggins said, knowing full well that two of his big men — Kevin Noreen and Dominque Rutledge — have ankle sprains. Noreen is likely to play, Rutledge probably not.
Dennis Tinnon and Nigel Spikes both average more than nine rebounds a game, WVU with no one averaging more than the 7.0 boards a game that Aaric Murray pulls down.
Marshall also has a solid point guard in leading scorer DeAndre Kane, who averages 16 points and more than eight assists a game while turning the ball over just 23 times in eight games.
Juwan Staten and Gary Browne have run the point for WVU, with Browne really being spectacular taking care of the ball with 13 assists to three turnovers.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.