By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It is far too early in the basketball season to be putting a crucial label on any game, let alone a non-conference game, but don’t try to sell that to West Virginia University’s Mountaineers, who at 1 p.m. today host Purdue in the Coliseum.
“We need this win. We need this win bad,” is the way sophomore guard Terry Henderson put it following in Friday’s practice.
See, West Virginia already has four losses to go with seven victories, one of the losses a bad one in which they blew a big lead against Virginia Tech.
In a perfect world, you would probably be judged far heavier on your conference performance than your non-conference, the non-conference play coming at the start of the season when you are still trying to work out the kinks and work in the freshmen.
Most teams place their true emphasis on conference play, but the NCAA Tournament selection committee looks a lot at what goes on in non-conference play and the Virginia Tech loss hurts, considering that WVU has been unable to make a dent into Top 20 teams.
They played three of them – Wisconsin, a top 5 team; Missouri and Gonzaga. They played each a tough, hard-fought game, falling far behind Wisconsin and Missouri and fighting back into contention by the end and then blowing a lead at home against Gonzaga.
Ergo, facing an 8-3 – though unranked – Purdue team from the Big Ten becomes a jewel to add to the NCAA bracelet, if WVU can pull it off.
And don’t think post-season play isn’t on players’ minds this early in the year.
“Every game we face against major teams we think about that,” Henderson said. “We look at our losses and think, ‘Man, we had that. We needed those wins for the resume.’ We will treat this the same way we treated Gonzaga. We’ll have the same mindset.”
The reason is quite simple. A 13-19 record last season kept WVU from going to post-season play after the Mountaineers were beginning to believe it was their birthright to play in the NCAA.
“It hurt me a lot, especially knowing the tradition and what West Virginia basketball is all about … winning and the tournament, making the Sweet 16 and The Final Four. Not making the tournament at all was pretty big. Hopefully we will change that around this year,” Henderson said.
It won’t be easy.
See, WVU has done what’s done this season on its offense, much of it guard-oriented hitting 3s or running the floor, Juwan Staten directing traffic, Eron Harris popping and Henderson slashing to the basket or shooting 3s from the corners.
Purdue has what it takes to make that difficult.
“Historically, Purdue is one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten,” coach Bob Huggins said. “I think Matt (Painter) has carried on the tradition from Gene Keady.”
What’s more, with Christmas break now upon us, it doesn’t figure there will be a student section to make the Coliseum its normally rowdy self, although they have designated it a Family Day and Gold Rush to try and draw as many fans as possible.
“I try to stay away from scheduling games in Morgantown during the break because there’s no one here, but you’d think the Purdue game we’d have some fans,” Huggins said.
He scheduled the game in part to help recruiting in the western Ohio and Indiana areas and to get it on national television, as well as to help with the Mountaineers RPI come selection time.
Purdue likes to push things in transition and doesn’t really have the powerful inside player that can hurt the Mountaineers, which could make life easier for freshman Devin Williams, who has been having a tough go of it.
It will also be interesting to see how Huggins uses Brandon Watkins, the other inside freshman who dominated in the come-from-behind victory over Marshall.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.