The Times West Virginian

Sports

December 29, 2013

Mountaineers face final non-conference test

MORGANTOWN — To date, this has become a basketball season to forget, yet coach Bob Huggins wants his young team to remember it as it heads into its final non-conference encounter at 3 p.m. today in Charleston against William & Mary.

The game can be seen on Root Sports Television.

The Mountaineers have won but seven of 12 non-conference games without managing to put a significant victory together. Close games have slipped through their fingers and rallies from back have fallen just short, toying with their emotions.

But looking coldly at it, they have not defeated a team with RPI of better than 200 and, should they beat a 6-4 William & Mary, it will go down as their most significant victory as the Tribe ranks No. 216.

Many coaches, given a situation such as this, coming back from Christmas break and with only one game separating their team from a two-month run of conference games, would try to convince their team to wipe the slate clean and start over again.

It was a ploy Dana Holgorsen used with his struggling football team, going so far as to wipe clean the board that listed goals by each game and how they had fared.

“We are starting over,” Holgorsen said when the blank board was brought up during his Tuesday media briefing. “We have four games left so it’s a new season. That’s what our message was Sunday. We have to keep fighting and keep battling, stay united, keep practicing and keep improving.”

It was a ploy that did not work, WVU winning but one of its final four games, including losses to Kansas and Iowa State, the two bottom feeders in the Big 12.

Huggins’ approach is different. He isn’t looking to clean the slate and start over.

“I would argue it started like 12 games ago,” Huggins said. “I think you learn from the past. I’m a big believer in history. We are going to continue to learn from all the things we didn’t do well and the reasons we didn’t win the games that we maybe coulda, shoulda won.

“If you don’t learn from that, you probably aren’t going to learn. In all honesty, if we don’t learn from that, we probably got the wrong guys.”

The biggest lesson Huggins wants to get across is that his team has play defense and rebound, that it must stop drives to the basket that have resulted in far too many layups and that it must find a way to get on the backboards.

The latter assignment will fall on freshman Brandon Watkins, whose playing time is expected to increase after consecutive strong games against Marshall and Purdue. Teaming with fellow freshman Devin Williams, the team’s leading rebounder, could give WVU a pair of solid rebounders.

Offensively, the Mountaineers must learn from the mistakes of the last game, that being they cannot live and die with the 3-point shot.

In a narrow loss to Purdue, WVU hit but 3 of 18 shots from 3-point range, which is unacceptable.

“We can’t continue to rely on shooting jump shots because, as we saw the other day, we’re not going to make them all the time. We wound up being 3 for 18 the other day,” he said.

“People say we lost because we were 3 for 18, but we lost because we gave up so many layups. If we had made them shoot jump shots instead of shooting layups, we probably would have won the game.

“We don’t guard. We have to start to guard, and we have to start to rebound.”

William & Mary is a team that normally shoots a lot of 3s itself under Coach Tony Shaver and has won four of its last five games, including a 10-point victory over Rutgers.

The Tribe has taken 223 3s in 10 games, while WVU has taken 251 in 12 games, about one more 3 a game than West Virginia.

One would not think WVU’s 3-point shooting will get a boost by playing in Charleston, having hit 4 of 15 of them in the Civic Center when facing Marshall.

This is neither a home game nor a road game, being held in Charleston, although it is beginning to reach the point attendance-wise where Huggins isn’t sure where he’d rather play his games.

“I don’t like playing in places when there’s nobody there,” Huggins said Friday, continuing his push to increase attendance at the Coliseum. “Historically, at least since I’ve been here, the people in Charleston have shown up for the games.

“We’re averaging about 3,800 no shows in Morgantown,” he continued. “I’ve begged people, if you are not going to come, give your tickets away. I understand. You can’t come to every game. But can’t we give them to somebody else? I’m sure there’s people who would love to come and sit in those great seats.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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