By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
On the surface, you may wonder what chance West Virginia has at victory at 9 p.m. today when Gonzaga comes into the Coliseum to face the Mountaineers.
Gonzaga is ranked No. 16 in the coaches poll and No. 20 in the AP poll. West Virginia is unranked.
Gonzaga is 8-1. West Virginia is 6-3.
They have played in each of the past two seasons and Gonzaga has won both games by a combined 57 points.
So how can anyone think WVU might have a chance?
The game is on WVU’s home court.
“We are different at home. We are a great team at home. So we’ll see what we can give Gonzaga when they come,” said Eron Harris, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer out of his guard slot with 18.9 points a game.
History backs Harris up.
In the past 11 years, nonconference teams that have agreed to come to the Coliseum could virtually guarantee they were putting a loss on their schedule, only three of 73 of them leaving with a victory. In fact, WVU has won 51 of its last 52 home nonconference games.
What’s more, the last five ranked nonconference teams to come to the Coliseum have left with a defeat — No. 8 Purdue in 2011, No. 21 Ohio State in 2010, No. 15 Ole Miss in 2009, No. 2 UCLA in 2007 and No. 20 George Washington in 2004.
If No. 16 Gonzaga should survive the trip, it would be the first ranked nonconference team to win in the Coliseum since No. 7 Tennessee in 2000, which eked out a 79-78 victory.
West Virginia has never beaten Gonzaga, never even come close. In 2012 they ran up against the Bulldogs in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Pitt and were beaten 77-54, then played their next game at Gonzaga, opening up last year’s schedule with an embarrassing 84-50 defeat.
And this Gonzaga team is little different from last year’s.
“They are a typical Gonzaga team,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “They have three really good perimeter guys in Pengos, Stockton and Bell.”
That is the three Gonzaga guards. Kevin Pengos has averaged 19.8 points; Gary Bell Jr., 13.8; and David Stockton runs the show.
“I think because Pengos is so good, Bell has been overlooked,” Huggins said. “He’s had a tremendous career. They’ve done a great job bringing transfers in and done a great job with foreign guys. It’s a typical Gonzaga team and Mark Few does a great job coaching them.”
But Huggins knows for WVU to take advantage of the home floor, he needs more support, especially from the student section, that has come out so far this season, average attendance standing at just 5,789 a game.
“I need it for my psyche,” Huggins said. “I’m tired of walking in there and seeing so many empty seats. When our students are into it, this is a great place. Most teams play better at home, but over the years, historically, West Virginia has played great in this arena to a large degree because of the fan base. When you don’t have that, I think you lose a little.”
Despite a recent loss on the road at Missouri, Huggins sees his young team, which starts two true freshmen in Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian, as improving.
“They’re getting better. If you watch them practice, you can see their understanding of the college game is getting better. There are a lot of things going on. We work on transition defense. But you can’t emphasize everything when you have two days to prepare. The things we’ve emphasized, they are getting better at and you hope you can get away with not emphasizing some things,” he said.
Harris believes success lies in the effort they put forth against a hustling Gonzaga outfit.
“If we don’t know anything — the offense or the defense — if we just play hard, we will win this game, especially at home,” Harris said. “We haven’t lost a game at home, and if we play like it’s the last game we’ll ever play, we will be good.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.