By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The preliminaries out of the way, West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team now gets down to business as it travels to Fort Worth, Texas, at 4 p.m. today to open its 2014 Big 12 season against an improved TCU in the first game of a crucial two-game road trip.
The Mountaineers travel cross-state after the game for a 7 p.m. Monday meeting with Texas Tech.
The TCU game can be seen on WVFX-TV.
The games are crucial because WVU went but 8-5 during its non-conference schedule, meaning it probably has to win a minimum of 12 Big 12 games during the 18-game season for an NCAA Tournament berth, a tall order in what many believe is the toughest conference in the country this season.
Coach Bob Huggins, however, has not discussed this aspect of the trip with his team.
“I would like to think we want to win all our games,” he said. “We have to win a bunch of games, but I’ve found that if you look ahead, you don’t take care of the business at hand. It’s not a good thing.”
“(The losses) puts a little added pressure on us, but we know in the games we lost we’ve been there right to the end, so we’re capable of winning big games. We just look at those games as getting us ready for Big 12 play,” WVU point guard Juwan Staten said.
So, for the time being, thoughts of the NCAA Tournament have been put aside to simply concentrate on TCU and then Texas Tech, teams WVU beat twice last year.
“We don’t pay attention to the name that is on the front of the jersey. We know we are in Big 12 play, and we want to be successful in Big 12 play, so we will go out and give it our all in every game,” Staten said.
These were the two worst teams in the Big 12 last year, but both have moved forward, TCU under Trent Johnson, who brought in the best recruiting class TCU has had in a long time, and Tech under former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.
Johnson’s prize jewel to build on an 11-21 season is a 6-10 center named Karviar Sheppard, who has been deemed “the highest-rated prospect to ever sign with TCU” by the team’s media guide.
Sheppard is averaging 8.3 points a game to go with 8.6 rebounds per contest.
Huggins certainly has seen the progress the Horned Frogs have made since WVU beat them twice last season.
“They have two 6-9 guys at the back of their zone, and that makes a difference. They did not have that size a year ago,” he said.
“The pace of the game has a lot to do with their improvement,” Huggins continued. “They create offense with their defense. They get their hands on a lot of balls, and now they have some guys who can make shots.
“Everyone knows Trent is a good coach, and he didn’t want to play at the pace they had to play at last year.”
The TCU offense is run by Kyan Anderson at the point.
“They have Kyan Anderson, a really good guard who controls the pace for them. We have to limit his touches because he makes the team go. We have to focus on him,” said Staten, who figures to draw that assignment.
“They are definitely better. They have more pieces this year,” added WVU guard Terry Henderson. “We just have to contain them on offense. They are still a little limited on offense now, but they have a 6-foot, 10-inch guy who will challenge some shots. We are going to have to play our game and make shots.”
In many ways, this was the best the Big 12 could do for WVU to open the season. In a loaded conference, the Mountaineers come in to face a pair of teams not expected to contend, and what better time to do it on the road than when school is out, so players don’t miss class?
What’s more, by tying these two games together on one trip it eases the travel burdens on WVU from having to make these cities on two separate trips.
WVU seems to have finally found its personality with Eron Harris as the leading scorer, his 18.6 average leading the Big 12, and with Juwan Staten leading the show from the point.
“Juwan is probably as fast and athletic as you will get at that position,” Huggins said.
He is averaging 16.3 points a game, 6.2 rebounds a game, second only to 6-9 Devin Williams on the team, and has 82 assists, seventh nationally, and just 22 turnovers.
Williams and freshman Brandon Watkins now handle the work down low, while Terry Henderson has come on as a scorer, pushing his average to 11 a game with a string of double-figure performances, while freshman Nathan Adrian heads into Big 12 play off a massive effort against William & Mary.
Adrian, who had been mired in a deep shooting slump, shook off a first-half broken nose and hit four of five second-half 3s to finish with a career-high 16 points.
NOTES – WVU PG Juwan Staten going above and beyond the job description, taking down at least six rebounds in six of the last seven games. … F Brandon Watkins is averaging 7.7 rebounds in his last three games. … G Terry Henderson has come on to score in double figures in five of his last six games after getting a late start on the season due to a shin injury. ... WVU ranks seventh nationally in fewest turnovers per game. … The West Virginia University men’s basketball game at Texas Tech, on Monday, has been moved to the Big 12 Network and ESPN3. The game time will remain at 7 p.m. It can be seen here on WVFX-TV.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.