By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team opens its 2012-13 season late tonight in a game they have waited a long time to play.
The Mountaineers will take the court at 11:59 p.m. to face Gonzaga, the team that ended their last season in the most inglorious of fashions, dropping a 77-52 bomb on them in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the worst postseason defeat the Mountaineers had suffered in 28 years.
What’s more, that game was played just up the road in Pittsburgh, not 3,000 miles away as this game will be in Spokane, Wash.
The taste of the NCAA defeat was a bitter one and has lingered all through the offseason.
“I don’t lose very well,” coach Bob Huggins said following his team’s exhibition victory over Glenville State, one of two preps they had to get ready for the game. The other was a closed scrimmage against Xavier, the results of which are not public.
Asked if he likes playing Gonzaga again, Huggins answered:
“There’s a whole lot of people I’d like to play again ... like 14 of them.”
He was referring to the losses that mounted throughout a 19-14 season, none worse than the Gonzaga loss.
“That was embarrassing,” Huggins said.
West Virginia had not lost a postseason game like that since dropping an NCAA meeting to Maryland in 1984 by 25 points. That was in the Gale Catlett era.
“I’ve never gotten beat like that,” Huggins said following last March’s game. “We just were never in the game. Shouldn’t say ‘never.’ Maybe a couple times. But not very well. I don’t know. Have to figure it out.”
It was a sour goodbye to WVU seniors Kevin Jones, who had 13 points in that game, and Truck Bryant, who suffered through a dismal performance, not hitting a shot in the first half and finishing 2 for 10.
This year there’s a new cast, the Mountaineers adding three transfers who are expected to have a huge impact, beginning with point guard Juwan Staten from Dayton, center Aaric Murray from LaSalle and double-transfer Matt Humphrey from Oregon and Boston College.
Staten runs the team and will work in the backcourt with Jabarie Hinds, Murray is an athletic shot blocker and scorer and Humphrey is a shooting forward who can score from anywhere.
They will join Deniz Kilicli, who brings his inside scoring and charisma, and a number of other athletic front-court players like Keaton Miles and Kevin Rutledge, to say nothing of backup point guard Gary Browne.
Whether or not the team is ready for such a challenge so early, with so many new faces, is questionable, but there’s no time like the present to find out.
“I don’t know how it would turn out if we played today,” Staten said of the rematch with Gonzaga following the Glenville State exhibition. “I’m glad the game is not today and we still have a couple of days to prepare.”
Huggins certainly wasn’t pleased with what he saw in the Glenville game.
“Obviously, we’re not ready for Gonzaga,” he said.
But he was eager to see just how his team would play.
“We’ll go out there and play like crazy, and when we get done at least we’ll know what we have to fix. By the end of that game we’ll know how good we are ... or how bad we are,” he said.
Obviously, he could have chosen an easier opener to get his team’s feet wet, but he didn’t feel that was the right way to approach it.
“I’d rather (go to Gonzaga) than schedule five games we win by 30 or 40 and you’ve masked your problems,” he said.
He had done this before, opening in 2002 at the new arena in Oklahoma City and losing a double-figure decision.
“It seemed like we lost by 106 points, the way we played,” he said. “We had a meeting and did some soul searching. Some guys questioned other guys’ fortitude. I questioned a lot of guys’ fortitude and we won 21 games in a row, but we knew what we had to fix. We’ll find out real quick where our issues are and we’ll go ahead and fix them.”
In a way, WVU is catching one break. Gonzaga junior forward Kelly Olynyk, a redshirt last season, is suspended for the game. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, Przemek Karnowski is not. He is a 7-foot-1, 305-pound center from Poland, and he joins veterans Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. Gonzaga also has John Stockton’s son David back from the team that pounded WVU last year.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.