By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia has a chance to turn a five-loss, non-conference portion into nothing more than a bad memory and give itself a big jump on the Big 12 season at 7 p.m. tonight as Mountaineers take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
The game can be seen on WCFX-TV.
WVU scored a hard-fought, 74-69, victory over a much-improved TCU on Saturday and now is trying to make it a two-game sweep of Texas and put a pair of road victories into the bank for what is shaping up as a crazy conference season.
Already Oklahoma State, considered one of the favorites to win the conference behind the exciting play of Marcus Smart, has been upset by Kansas State.
WVU feels it owes Texas Tech something, the Red Raiders having knocked WVU out of the Big 12 Tournament last season, giving the Mountaineers their final defeat in what was a 13-19 year, Coach Bob Huggins’ only losing season since his first year as a head coach in Division I.
The game presents an interesting coaching matchup as Huggins goes against former Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith, who, unlike Huggins, has an NCAA championship on his résumé.
That came in 1998.
Smith is one of six Big 12 coaches to lead a team to the Final Four and unlike any other conference, every one of the 10 coaches in the conference has led a team to the NCAA Tournament.
Smith was hired at Texas Tech this season after coaching at Minnesota in an attempt to rebuild the Texas Tech program, much as the school did a few years back Bobby Knight.
He and Huggins have met twice previously with Smith winning both, beating Cincinnati when he was at Kentucky and then beating WVU in the 2010 Puerto Rican tipoff Classic.
After failing to score a signature non-conference victory while coming close in all of their losses, twice blowing big leads WVU has discovered its best stride lately and comes into the Texas Tech game with three victories in its last four games.
Guard Eron Harris, the Big 12’s leading scorer averaging 18.6 points a game, shook off the effects of the flu to score 22 points off the bench against TCU.
However, the most impressive development has come with the play of Morgantown High freshman Nathan Adrian, who has found his 3-point shooting eye while crashing the boards to give WVU another option.
All of it is being run flawlessly from the point by junior Juwan Staten, who is averaging 16.2 points a game while recording 85 assists against just 24 turnovers.
Huggins recognizes his team’s improvement, but he understands it is nowhere yet close to playing well enough to contend in this conference.
“We still don’t play through things enough. We did some dumb things against TCU,” he said.
For example, he singled out a moment when the Mountaineers committed a foul against TCU’s post man out near half court.
He also noted the team needed more consistent play out of a number of players.
Terry Henderson, for example, had seemed to be coming on strongly over the last half-dozen games, scoring in double figures and beginning to hit boards, but against TCU he made but 3 of 10 shots. He was, however, a factor rebounding with seven of them as WVU became the first team this season to outrebound TCU, 38-27, grabbing 17 off the offensive glass.
And Remi Dibo continued to go up and down, scoring just two points on one of four shooting.
Texas Tech relies heavily on a pair of veteran players in senior Jay Crockett and junior Jordan Tolbert. Both are on pace to reach 1,000 points and 500 rebounds this season.
Crockett, in fact, could reach the 1,000 point plateau with 17 points in today’s game.
Tolbert has 838 points and 438 rebounds, making it a season-long project.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel